The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Translated by Joanne Turnbull
I’ve written about Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky on the Ramblings before; an author who was unpublishable under the Soviet regime, his works came to light after the collapse of the USSR and have been gradually published and then translated into English thanks to the great talents of Joanne Turnbull. Three of his works have been issued by NYRB, and I’ve read, loved and reviewed all of them. So you can imagine how excited I was when I heard that NYRB would be bringing out another volume by SK, in the form of “The Return of Munchausen”. The book is out today and the publisher has kindly provided a review copy.
Every Baron has his flights of fancy… I flatter myself with the hope that I have made better and wider use than any other barons of my right to flights of fancy.
Munchausen was in fact a real historical character, a German nobleman who fought for Russia in the Russo-Turkish war of 1735-39. He gained a reputation for his tall tales, and the German author Rudolf Raspe transmuted him into the fictional fabulist we know him as today, thanks to a fictionalised version of his life. Munchausen has become synonymous with lying, and the real character died back in 1797. However, SK resurrects him rather wonderfully to take on Soviet Russia – and the story is absolutely fascinating.
And in the third place, you are a bad poet, I swear by my pipe, if you do not know that books, if only they are books, may be commensurate with but never proportionate to reality!
Munchausen reappears after 200 years by dropping off the hands of time back into the Palace of Versailles. He makes a base in Berlin, where he spins more fabulous yarns, accompanied by occasional sidekick, the poet Ernst Unding (which translates as Earnest Nonsense). Amusingly enough, he’s announced as:
HIERONYMUS VON MUNCHAUSEN
Supplier of Phantasms and Sensations
In and Out of This World
Immediately, he’s courted by the great and good, and called upon to tell tales, solve problems and eventually to undertake a secret mission. The Baron is asked to visit Soviet Russia and report back, which he does. Munchausen’s visit to Russia is not relayed directly; instead we see it filtered through his eyes, as he relates his adventures to a rapt London audience. And it’s a fascinating story, as the Baron encounters poverty, twisted logic and a society which says one thing and does another. He even manages an audience with Lenin, who seems to be able to read Munchausen’s mind, and has strong opinions on writers:
A literary hero is naturally curious about literature. About ‘how life smells’. It smells of printer’s ink to the people who populate books or have emigrated to them. So then, all of our penmen are given a choice: feast or fast. Some work steadily; others starve.
Nothing usually fazes the Baron; however, in the nascent Soviet Union he has met his match. In the end, a reality full of such fabrication is too much for the Baron and he takes himself back to where he came from. His visit was in fact spurious, but the stories he invented were sometimes actually real, and the truth is more fantastic than his tales. Munchausen the fabulist is ultimately outdone by the Soviet state, which can create more outlandish untruths than he can deal with.
I swept a fact away with a phantasm, replaced the existent with the non-existent. Always and invariably my phantasms won – always and invariably, that is, until I chanced upon the country about which one cannot lie.
So where to begin talking about “The Return of Munchausen”? Obviously, you have suspend disbelief from the start and just go with the flow. The Baron himself, as presented by SK, is a fantastic creation; confident, convinced that his tales are better than truth, it’s wonderful watching him sail indomitably through the world, an elusive figure following his own agenda. And if there’s something he wants to avoid, he simply jumps back into the book he originally came from.
Then again, how hard could it be for a man who had slipped through the five beams of a star to elude five claws?
However, putting aside the humour, this a book with a serious heart and I would say more directly satirical than his other works. There is a recurring obsession with smoke which occurs throughout the book; of course, smoke and mirrors signify the trickery of politics (both Soviet and in the wider world), but this also brought to mind the book “Smoke” by Turgenev, a book which deals with the illusions existing in Russia during that author’s time. As with all SK’s books, the imagery is unusual and stunning; on the first page, almost the first lines, we read “Now he sprang up the length of a long runner; leaping after him, taking the stairs two at a time, came muddy footprints”. Some of the phrases take your breath away as you’re reading, and even if you weren’t aware of the underlying issues the book is wonderful to read. Its self-referential qualities make it feel almost post-modern at times, and I’ve seen it described as part roman a clef, although it’s not clear whether Munchausen, Unding or the unnamed person in the quote below is standing in for the author himself….
And as for that poor scholar from the country about which one cannot lie, do not worry. I have sent him, by way of compensation, my rough drafts; if he possesses so much as a pair of scissors and a pot of glue, the resulting manuscript should help him on his literary way.
“The Return…” is an extended meditation on the nature of truth, something which must have been sharply relevant to an author living in Soviet Russia and refusing to produce Soviet Realism. The qualities in the Communist state which would be transformed by Orwell into concepts like Doublethink and Doublespeak were already in place; set in 1921, the book was written towards the end of the 1920s when the iron grip of Soviet rule was becoming established so it’s not surprising it was never published. Like so many other authors at the time, SK was most definitely writing for the drawer (the few attempts he made to get his works into print being crushed by the censor).
If you look at Moscow from a bird’s-eye view, you will see: a stone spider in the center – the Kremlin, peering out of four wide open archways at the web of streets it has woven, their gray threads, as in any web, stretching away radially, attaching themselves to distant gates…
I found myself profoundly affected by this book; it’s vivid and allusive (and fortunately provided with excellent notes and introduction by Turnbull), and the more I think about it, the more there is in it. SK seems to manage to comment on every aspect of Soviet life, even pulling in a sly reference to the theories of the Communist Manifesto when discussing the attraction of such opposites as a White Russian aristocrat and a Red Guard:
So it always was, so it will always be: antitheses will always trail after theses, but let them marry – and their old friend synthesis will be there like a shot.
If it seems that I’ve pulled out a lot of quotes that’s because the writing is so good and the imagery so outstanding. Although it’s a book with a message, “The Return of Munchausen” is a joy to read as well.
His listeners are all ears, and right away he begins to bend them; first around the edges, then along the auricular cartilage, inward and inward, until they curl up like autumn leaves and, ear by ear, softly and unrustlingly, flutter to the floor. But now his disciplined manservant, who has appeared behind the guests’ backs with dustpan and brush, quietly sweeps up the ears and carries them out.
I feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of the book here, as it’s rich with references, thoughts, aphorisms and wild imaginative humour. It’s certainly a work which I’ll return to and which will continue to resonate as I assimilate what it has to say. “The Return of Munchausen” is a deeply thoughtful and fascinating read, and I can’t recommend SK’s books enough,