The Return of Munchausen
by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
translated from the Russian by Joanne Turnbull (2016)
NYRB Classics (2016)
The adventurous, boasting Baron Munchausen — who once rode on a cannonball, pulled himself out of a lake by his pigtail, and traveled to the moon — first appeared in Rudolf Erich Raspe’s 1785 book of social satire Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of His Marvelous Travels and Campaigns in Russia. How brilliant it was that Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky brought back the German Baron, creator of worlds that never were, to make way this time in Soviet Russia, a world that clamps down on the imagination.
This is the fourth Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky book that NYRB Classics has brought us, each quite different from the last but also each recognizably from his intricate philosophical imagination that, though elusive, was considered so subversive his works were never published in his lifetime. Any Krzhizhanovsky release is a big event for me. For those unfamiliar with Krzhizhanovsky, I’ve written about him quite a bit in reviews of Memories of the Future (here), The Letter Killers Club (here), and Autobiography of a Corpse (here).
It’s important to note that Krzhizhanovsky’s subversion was not just a figment of the Soviet censors’ imaginations. His works — always beautifully written and brilliantly translated by Joanne Turnbull, always highly imaginative and playful, and always concerned with the individual’s psyche, whether expanding with the power of the imagination or shrinking under some other oppressive force — are more often than not screeds against the Soviet system, as one of those oppressive forces. For example, the protagonist in his short story “Quadraturin,” found in Memories of the Future, finds himself with a rare possession in Soviet Moscow: a room. It’s tiny and a bit miserable, but it’s valuable. To make it even more valuable, a salesman comes along with a cream that will “biggerize” the room on the inside while keeping it looking all the same on the outside. Ah, the space! Things do not end well, though, and our man finds himself in an endless abyss where he feels more like the one who has shrunk, an apt metaphor for Krzhizhanovsky’s view of the shrinking consciousness under the Soviet system.
Krzhizhanovsky often writes about the “I,” which to him is a vast property with endless imagination and potential, and about institutions or philosophies that minimize it. How fitting, as I said above, for Krzhizhanovsky to bring back Munchausen and send him back to a Russia so different from the land Munchausen found in the eighteenth century. The world has transformed into a place Krzhizhanovsky felt battered the imagination and, therefore, the “I,” the soul. Munchausen is a worthy advocate: “We Munchausens have always faithfully served fiction,” the Baron says early in Krzhizhanovsky’s book.
The Return of Munchausen, with its serious undercurrent, is still a playful, funny, and fittingly bizarre and philosophically dense book. In several of his books — and Munchausen is no exception — Krzhizhanovsky references and riffs on Kant’s philosophies about how the human mind creates the structure of human experience (often Krzhizhanovsky works this equation the other way, showing how human experience can create (or destroy) the human mind). At the beginning of Munchausen, the Baron and a German poet named Unding are arguing about this philosopher, particularly bringing in the work of Hans Vaihinger, a notable Kant scholar who wrote The Philosophy of “As If” (as is helpfully pointed out in Turnbull’s excellent introduction), which posits that humans make up things all the time because it is better to live “as if” those things are true. The Baron is over 200 years old, now, and the world — the real world — is threatening to shake apart even the fictional worlds that Munchausen (and Krzhizhanovsky) think are so important:
The jolts of clock hand against numbers become more and more violent: at 1789 I squeeze my knees harder; at 1871 I have to grip the clock hand with both my arms and my legs; but by 1914 the numbers’ shocks have become unbearable; banging into 1917 and 1918, I lose my balance and go tumbling head over heels, down.
At this point in the book, Munchausen is not too worried. He’s as arrogant as he always was, and he delights in living in worlds that have never been. He’s going to leave Berlin, he says, to visit the London fog. But while there, he gets hired by three newspapers to serve as an undercover correspondent in “the Land of the Soviets,” This is where the imagined world must fight its hardest.