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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Return of Munchausen

Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky

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To purchase The Return of Munchausen

Title: The Return of Munchausen
Author: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: (1928) (Eng. 2016)
Length: 120 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Return of Munchausen - US
The Return of Munchausen - UK
The Return of Munchausen - Canada
The Return of Munchausen - India
Le retour de Münchhausen - France
  • Russian title: Возвращение Мюнхгаузена
  • Translated by Joanne Turnbull, with Nikolai Formozov
  • With an Introduction by Joanne Turnbull

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Our Assessment:

A- : sharp, good fun

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The NY Times . 26/12/2016 Carmela Ciuraru
Publishers Weekly . 17/10/2016 .
The Spectator . 11/2/2017 Anna Aslanyan
The Times . 4/3/2017 Fiona Wilson

  From the Reviews:
  • "Munchausen can’t help himself. His perceptions do not extend much beyond "radius of his fedora," and his delight in bending reality as he pleases seems almost childlike, and utterly charming." - Carmela Ciuraru, The New York Times

  • "Readers will discover in this remarkable novel a very serious satire, an honest fable, and a bit of genius." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Munchausen’s florid style, inherited from his original, is complemented by Krzhizhanovsky’s own penchant for proverbs and puns. This translation preserves the wordplay (...). The notes are as informative and as witty as the text itself. (...) Munchausen leaves his poet friend to ponder the notions of truth and falsehood. Krzhizhanovsky’s work vividly demonstrates what a powerful medium modernism is to explore both." - Anna Aslanyan, The Spectator

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The original 'Baron Munchausen' was an invention of Rudolf Erich Raspe, whose 1785 book introduced the character -- except, of course, that the character happened to be loosely based on a very real Baron von Münchhausen, who did indeed travel to and long lived in Russia. Raspe's fantastical version was a great literary success, and the name 'Munchausen', and some of his escapades, remain well-known to this day -- and one can see the obvious appeal to Krzhizhanovsky, to appropriate this character with his preposterous achievements and outrageous claims and re-place him in the (then) contemporary world. And that's what Krzhizhanovsky does here: given everything else Munchausen is capable of, longevity would surely be the least of it, and why shouldn't he live to two hundred ? So Krzhizhanovsky presents the man -- "Supplier of Phantasms and Sensations / In and Out of This World", as his business card has it, and with a coat of arms with the motto, Mendace veritas ('Truth, in lies'; cf.) -- still going strong, and has him go about his business in the present-day, complete with a visit to a Russia that is newly Soviet.
       "We Munchausen's have always faithfully served fiction", Krzhizhanovsky has his (anti-)hero proclaim, and the author makes sure he continues to do so here. The centerpiece of the novel is Munchausen's trip to 'the Land of the Soviets', as he is hired as a correspondent to report from the 'land of the unbelievers'. The longest section of the novel then is his journey-account, before the Royal Society of London, upon his return.
       Both getting into and the out of Soviet Russia prove difficult -- but naturally the initial border-crossing recreates the original Munchausen's famous cannonball-ride. Now on a "modern-day missile" (which he complains: "is not as easy to bestride as the old clumsy cast-iron bomb"), after two failed attempts, they vault him over. "Aim Herr Baron at the RSFSR. Fire !" -- is typical of the humor that's both broad and stinging.
       Munchausen's absurdist take is perfect for conveying the deprivations and politics of the new Soviet Union, and old Munchausen-tales are clevley repurposed for the new, such as in suggesting how food shortages are dealt with. Krzhizhanovsky has some fun with the literary production of the time as well -- 'Soviet belles lettres' (about which Munchausen is naturally enthusiastic). And writing in the still heady 1920s, Krzhizhanovsky can even joke about his protagonist beings sentenced to death -- a sentence that is carried out, but by popguns, leaving him: "in the position of a conditional corpse" (which has its uses, too).
       Of course, this being Munchausen, the essence is the lie, and his philosophy:

I have always known only creations: before entering a house, I must build it.
       So, he suggests, the last thing he'd do would be: "to think of looking for Moscow ... in Moscow", and that his 'Soviet Union' is a Munchausian construct. Why bother actually traveling there, when one can invent it all in one's mind's eye ? It's a clever final twist to Krzhizhanovsky's satire of the workers' state -- and better yet in that in the entity-that-is-the-Soviet Union arguably defeats even Munchausen, as it is: 'the Country About Which One Cannot Lie !"
       Krzhizhanovsky is more storyteller than full-fledged novelist, and the tall-tale-teller protagonist of The Return of Munchausen plays to his strengths, with numerous larger and smaller episodes nicely presented within the larger whole. But it works as a short novel too, a unified work.
       It's also remarkably dense and clever satire, with philosophical and doctrinal allusions effortlessly woven in, as the useful endnotes help reveal. Krzhizhanovsky packs a great deal smoothly in, barely rippling the surface yet backed by astonishing depth and weight. It can seem to be an off-hand piece, a riff on a classic character and tale, but there's actually impressively much to it. And, quite remarkably, it works and is enjoyable, regardless of how it is approached or considered.

- M.A.Orthofer, 26 March 2017

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The Return of Munchausen: Reviews: Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Other books by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Russian author Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky (Sigismund Krzyzanowski, Сигизмунд Доминикович Кржижановский) lived 1887 to 1950. He was a prominent but largely unpublished literary figure in the Soviet Union in the 1920s and 1930s.

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© 2017-2022 the complete review

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