The Return of Munchausen by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky
He’s back: after two and a half centuries of being trapped in Rudolph Erich Raspe’s 1786 novel Baron Munchausen’s Narrative of his Marvellous Travels and Campaigns in Russia, the Baron himself has slipped from between pages sixty-eight and sixty-nine of an antiquated volume and is ready to see the world.
Set in the early 1920s, Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky’s wondrous The Return of Munchausen (1927-1928) presents the eponymous baron with a dramatically shifted international landscape. His 18th century escapades had once brought him through a different kind of Russia, but now, in the years following World War I, will this land of Soviets nurture his hijinks with the same Quixotic aplomb?
Krzhizhanovsky’s political satire is worldly and pointed: Munchausen travels the land and finds England to be a marvelous arena for his magical extravagance. He plants beans around his house that transform his home overnight into a fortress of towering stalks. While in his study, he develops a stage show of sorts to present his global findings to sold-out auditoriums of curious viewers. But Russia calls, and despite receiving a “moral visa” from every country in the world except the Soviet Union, he decides to make the trek by train.
It’s a brilliantly playful move to resuscitate a beloved fictional character to explore satire and politics. There was a time when Munchausen was the hero the world needed: he once pulled himself out of a swamp by his own goatee! He rode cannonballs, fought alligators, and helped the Russians fight the Turks! But is there a place for Munchausen in the present, after international wars and continually rising global tension? Krzhizhanovsky reanimated him during the era of Soviet censorship, but a broader question could be asked at any decade. Have we grown beyond daydreaming and adventures?
As expected, The USSR does not sit well with the Baron. He meets with a mathematician and a philosopher but is beleaguered by the backwards logic that now permeates the Soviet Union. “If one takes a marble from a box containing only black and white ones,” he posits to the mathematician, “one can predict with a certain percentage of probability that the marble will be, say, white….but have you and I in our lives, Mr. Dowly, not run up against an extraordinary case when, from a box containing only blacks and whites, the hands of history–to the discomfiture of all–drew a red?”
“They closed the doors of consciousness,” Munchausen explains upon his return, “whereas I flung them wide to nothingness, which is indeed everything.” Munchausen’s journey through Russia exposes a terrible development in modern thinking, where the imagination is diffused in the name of government. When Munchausen departs again, back into his leather-bound tome, Krzhizhanovsky leaves little promise of his return. “I created not yet created worlds,” Munchausen passionately exclaims, “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.” What about our dreams, Krzhizhanovsky asks? How tragic that we could have invented any world but ended up with this one, with no place for the Baron.