Kirkus Reviews QR Code
THE RETURN OF MUNCHAUSEN by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky Kirkus Star


by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky with translated by Joanne Turnbull & Nikolai Formozov

Pub Date: Dec. 13th, 2016
ISBN: 978-1-68137-028-6
Publisher: New York Review Books

Early Soviet writer Krzhizhanovsky (1887-1950; Autobiography of a Corpse, 2013, etc.) revives the eponymous teller of tall tales and sets him loose in 1920s Moscow.

Baron Munchausen (based on a real historical figure mythologized in the 1700s) is still an irrepressible fabulist at the age of 200. After befriending a poet named Ernst Unding (German for "earnest nonsense"), he leaves Berlin for the fogs of London. The pace is madcap, the tone wry; a poet at work suffers an "attack of egoism—what literary historians call 'inspiration.' " At Mad Bean Cottage on Bayswater Road, Munchausen dictates postprandial aphorisms and entertains illustrious guests with stories of Diderot and Catherine the Great. Next he's sent to Moscow "as a correspondent," and the bulk of the novella is the account he subsequently gives at the Royal Society of London. In Communist Russia, he finds that "everything has been eaten, including the onion domes." The baron visits "the compiler of The Dictionary of Omissions, Complete & Unabridged...the famous geographer who discovered the Spur of the Moment..." and "a ceremonial session of the Association for the Study of Last Year's Snow." "Red science is forging ahead," Lenin claims, but Munchausen sees a poorly equipped scientist forced to write formulas on the black back of a carriage which rolls away midscribble. Munchausen rejects "the trammels of truth," prays to Saint Nobody, and plays a "complex game of phantasms against facts." In a last meeting he tells his poet friend, "I created not-yet-created worlds, lighted and doused suns, ripped up old orbits, and traced new paths in the universe; I did not discover new countries, oh no, I invented them." But "the Country About Which One Cannot Lie" defeats him in what is ultimately a parable about the artistic imagination under Soviet censorship.

Playful and erudite, sprinkled with philosophy and politics, funny in places and melancholy in others, this novella, like most of Krzhizhanovsky's work, remained unpublished during his lifetime; how lucky that we can read it now.