Who? Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky, Soviet modernist and newly-discovered king of the Russian neologism, in translation by Joanne Turnbull, who is still prising his works from obscurity.
What? A jolly, jaunty novella in which the fabled Baron von Munchausen meets his match in ‘the country you can’t lie about’, the country where fantasy met fiction on the daily – the fourletterdom of the USSR.
When? Late 1920s, with a good peer into Lenin’s NEP chucked in, but only just translated into English.
How? Krzhizhanovsky guides us through Munchausen guiding us through quirky wee anecdotes guiding us through olden days Moscow via London and Berlin.
Why? My chance comingacrossing of Krzhizhanovsky’s ‘Quadraturin’ in Penguin’s Russian Short Stories from Pushkin to Buida (among the greatest) immediately set off an insatiable interest in this Kafkaesque, Borgesian Soviet obscurantist. The first stop was Memories of the Future, followed by the short stories in his collection Autobiography of a Corpse, then the longer work The Letter Killers Club, and now Munchausen. Munchausen represents Krzhizhanovsky unable to shake the power of flash, filling his novella with gentle pellets of fine prose, little witticisms, dainty treats. The power of his work is in the extension of metaphor, and the thorough Soviet reflection that electrifies it. I’m not sure what Turnbull is dragging up next; I cannot wait. It is a shame only that I am too ill today to praise Munchausen or Krzhizhanovsky or Turnbull or NYRB further.
The Return of Munchausen is available as an NYRB paperback, in translation by the tireless Joanne Turnbull and Nikolai Formozov, who are single-handedly dragging this crucial lost literature out of obscurity.
15 May 2017