“Truth in Lies”: On The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, translated and introduced by Joanne Turnbull

NYRBI confess I don’t read nearly enough translation, despite long-standing knowledge of how insular Americans’ reading habits are, and a long-standing desire to be, well, unlike a typical American. Part of the problem (which is, of course, entirely mine) is that translations can be hard to come by, rarely finding their way onto the Fiction & Literature shelf, and they can be somewhat, shall we say, inaccessible. In regards to the latter, it is intriguing to discover how much more avant-garde, or experimental, international literature is, to dive into prose that disregards standard American-English rules about plot, character development, linearity, and storytelling. But the biggest obstacle, I find, when I do crack open a translated book, is confronting the lack of knowledge around other cultures’ histories and social mores. As Americans, it can be easy to take for granted our own ways of being, assuming everyone lives like us—reading translated fiction from any nation proves this is definitely not the case.

I spent a lot of time ruminating on my American shortcomings as I read The Return of Munchausen, a Russian novel penned in the 1920s by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, recently published in a beautifully translated edition by New York Review of Books Classics. Despite his output, only a handful of Krzhizhanovsky’s stories were published during his lifetime. Brought back into the cultural conversation during perestroika, the political movement for reformation of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union that took hold in the 1980s, Krzhizhanovsky has recently been recognized as one of Russia’s great 20th-century writers. His work has been given a lot of love over the last few years by NYRB Classics, who has published his story collections Autobiography of a Corpse and Memories of the Future and his novel, The Letter Killers Club, and by Joanne Turnbull, who has translated them.

The Return of Munchausen is not an easy book to read—it is a frenetic narrative, with only a wisp of a plot and a fair bit of philosophy. If you are unfamiliar with Russian history—or why it might be important here—there isn’t much to guide you within the text (though Turnbull has provided extensive end notes, constant flipping to the back matter ruins the flow of reading—and thus a choice has to be made: know more or stay with the story). I don’t say this to be discouraging. Because, once settled into, The Return of Munchausen is quite remarkable: Munchausen spins tall tales with alacrity, and the riddles, myths, and legends he intones are fascinating. What unfolds is a distinct, subtly unsubtle play on the idea of reality, which is meant to hold a mirror to the troubled era that Krzhizhanovsky wrote through, but which also has relevance today, especially given the often surreal events that have been unfolding across our current political landscape.

It should be noted that the character Munchausen is based on a real person: Baron Hieronymus von Munchausen, who lived from 1720 to 1797 and spent many years in the Russian service. The original Munchausen’s grandiose storytelling was captured in English and German editions by two different writers, and has enjoyed a legendary place in Europe’s cultural imagination ever since. According to Turnbull, in her introduction, Krzhizhanovsky has taken his own liberties with the mythical baron—in The Return of Munchausen, he is now 200 years old, emerging from his “retirement” to become an undercover agent in the Soviet Union. Munchausen here retains his flair for self-aggrandizement, and he does it in such a absurd, likeable way. In fact, it is very difficult to dislike Krzhizhanovsky’s Munchausen—even when his flights of fancy refuse to cease.

In one scene, after Munchausen misses his train, he visits the Department of Yesterdays, where the head of the department greets him: “‘It happens, it happens.’ He smiled. ‘One man lets an instant slip by, another his entire life. But apply to us for your diem perdidi and you will find that we, like the biblical Ruth gleaning ears of corn dropped by the sickle, gather up all that is reaped and spent. We waste nothing: not a single second that has ticked by. Ruth gathers up Rus, ha! Here you are—take your yesterday.’” And thus, with his sleepy yesterday tossing in a little box, Munchausen races to the station and catches his long past/now present train just in time.

In another scene, Munchausen recounts his assisting a small village: the civil war has reduced their number of horses, leading to infighting between the farmers and the carriers over who should have access to the limited supply of work animals. Munchausen, ever resourceful, orders a saw be brought and hacks the horses in two: “The front legs were harnessed to carts, the hind legs to plows, and matters began to improve. Thus I fought horselessness. Had the Soviet government adopted my point of view… it might have avoided years of ruination and impoverishment.”

Like many of the tales spun in the pages of The Return of Munchausen, this one is full of bravado and absurdity. And yet, there remains—throughout—a pragmatism in the metaphor. Munchausen may have a penchant for self-promotion, but it does not obscure his centuries-long commitment to civic duty.

There is also, here, a discreet sense of wistful. Munchausen’s adventures are dashing, and yet tempered by nostalgia. One gets the feeling that Munchausen has reached the end of his rope (or pigtail, as the case may be) and is tiring of the limelight. Toward the end of the narrative, Munchausen disappears—“Fame is like a sound thrown at the mountains: a succession of echoes, pauses more and more prolonged, a last dull distant reverberation—and again the stony silence pressing its gigantic crags of ears to some new sound”—until his poet-friend, Unding, receives a mysterious invitation from Munchausen “’for a last meeting with a last person’.” It is Unding, whose visit to Munchausen opens the book, who closes Munchausen’s tale. But don’t worry, Munchausen’s end is as absurd and delightful as the rest of his days.

Turnbull does a wonderful job of capturing the lively prose of The Return of Munchausen, which in turn brilliantly captures Munchausen’s lively antics. Krzhizhanovsky appears to be a Russian magical realist of sorts, portraying a world that is both mundane and strange. Inanimate objects become animate on the page—stairs scurry, a gearbox gnashes its teeth, smoke roars—and Munchausen’s speech and actions beg the question: What is reality? He answers in riddles, worships “Saint Nobody,” and lives by the motto “Mendace veritas [Truth in lies.]” There is much to be said for this boundary-breaking, and Krzhizhanovsky says it well—the power and potency of fiction are alive and well in The Return of Munchausen.
Sara Rauch’s prose has appeared in Hobart, Gravel, Split Lip, So to Speak, Luna Luna, and more. Her debut story collection, WHAT SHINES FROM IT, is forthcoming (2018) from Alternating Current Press. She lives in western Massachusetts with her family.