The Return of Munchausen contains a reasonable narrative arc, but that arc is often less important that the vitality of the myriad ideas that populate each chapter. Krzhizhandovsky is a brilliant thinker and an original modernist stylist, whose flights of fancy make a master American modernist like William Burroughs look almost derivative by comparison.
The author's surreal plot points mock many different aspects of modern European life but are particularly effective at satirizing the early years of Soviet Union. For Krzhizhandovsky, the Soviet experiment appears to be insanely bureaucratic, criminally negligent, duly scientific, unthinkingly militaristic, and cruelly egalitarian. Krzhizhandovsky is not, however, merely concerned with criticizing the Soviet government. Rather, he seems to be dissecting the post-World War I human condition, which involves violence and disorientation.
Notwithstanding his apparent disgust for Soviet rule, Krzhizhandovsky evidently has a grudging respect for the importance of revolution, which, the baron claims, is the primary method for dividing time into different historical periods. Not merely serving as the numbers on a clock, revolutionary events serve to speed up time. If 1789, 1830, 1848, and 1871 came as violent shocks, 1917 threatens to throw everyone off balance entirely.
The shock of the 1917 revolution is particularly unnerving as a result of its close connection to war. Throughout The Return of Muchchausen, traces of World War I appear, including Versailles and other so-called peace treaties. But Soviet society seems to be the society most specacularly transformed by the Great War. The impact of World War I on Russian life is paritcularly evident in the author's recurring use of war terminology, including trenches, missiles, artillery barrages, musket locks, and hunger. It's also evident when the baron encounters buffer states, guard towers, frontiers, and customs officers as he attempts to make his way into the secretive "Land of the Soviets." As a reflection of the future, Russia is perhaps inherently warlike.
However, the impermeability of the Russian frontier also speaks to the fact that non-Russians find the mysterious Soviet Union as tantalizing as a glimpse of the unknown future should be. Bad or good, people want to know what the future has in store for them. They expect to keep their eyebrows raised continuously as they encounter the future in every facet of Soviet life. In the case of the baron, he eventually has to restart to riding on the back of a rocket to enter Bolshevik Russia to get a proper taste of modernity. "Yes, I had at once to admit that you cannot outrun technology. Even phantasms cannot outstrip it."
The new revolutionary government isn't merely modern by virtue of its warlike qualities. It is also modern in its class antagonisms. In Soviet Russia, the baron is obviously an atavistic presence. As an American writer once said, the world had (formerly) been ruled by men who did less than two hours of work a day. Things would be different in this Soviet society of the future where everyone could be equally impoverished.
What of the politics of the future? In Russia, men and women lived in a state of constant surveillance. Soviet people lived "lives fenced off by denunciations and chekaneries; raise your eyes to theirs and you see pupils like point-blank muzzles." The baron notes that democracy has no role whatsoever to play in this most modern of countries. In fact, back in Britain, the British are forced to do some extraordinarily absurd calculations--i.e., they quantify the work power required to move the tongues of politicians--to justify the system they have defended for so many years.
One of the more interesting aspects of Krzhishanovsky's portrayal of time, revolution, and modernity, is that he demonstrates that modern men and women are increasingly disoriented by their headlong movement into unknown territory even as they continue to have access to the experiences of multiple historical epochs. 1917 wasn't just a year of political experimentation, it was a year of films, electricity, and "rivers of automobiles."
Russia's current experiment with centralized bureaucratic rationalization has its antecedents in Catherine the Great's flirtation with the Enlightenment, the Russian people are somehow able to remember life before the Soviets brought them electrification and every other symbol of modernity. Post-World War I life in Russia wasn't therefore merely a bold movement into the future. It was also a radical juxtaposition of many different historical eras operating on the same temporal plane. As a countess argues: "And when we became angelless, the smoke rose up from space to time and so began our beclouded (as through a haze) Time of Troubles. Time itself became troubled and the centuries confused, the thirteenth with the twentieth, and then: revolution."
To be sure, Krzhizhanovsky's problem with time isn't unique. As literary critics have pointed out, many modernist authors were deeply concerned with the nature of time, and set out to explore its mutability in bold literary experiments. Krzhizahanovsky may be reasonably original, however, in that he has associated a new temporal reality with the Russian Revolution. For his characters, modernist time isn't merely something to be explored, it is something to be lamented. As the countess continues: "Look at the street-clocks disks: are their hands not trembling with disgust, flicking off the seconds' soot and cinders? Are your eyes not crying, stung by the smoke of the times?"
Even in Europe's most modern state, the underside of modernity continues to exist. Thus, officially atheist Russia continues to harbor deeply religion peasants, and communist leaders of a nationalized economy continue to feel anxiety about the possible return of exiled property owners. Even the ancient "hordes" of Russian history remained ready to strike out in violence against undetermined targets. Thus, on one level at least, communist Russia remains "unhurrying, ever in slow motion." As one Russian puts it, "We may inch along, but we do advance." Paradoxically, the Land of the Soviets was therefore a site of technological innovation and a site of peasant "pitchforks" and "bast shoes." It was a place where superstitious, "know-nothing" peasants might yet take heed to the baron's stern advice: "I told him he should be ashamed, at his hoary age, of trading God for socialism."
The Land of the Soviets was therefore essentially a series of paradoxes. It was the kind of place where plans were being drawn up for everything, including that which could not, or should not, be planned. As the baron recalled, upon entering the Soviet Union he "drew up a plan to rationalize brigandage." The expression, of course, seems to perfectly capture the criminality of Stalin's version of socialism. The Land of the Soviets was a place where advanced "Red Science" could easily coexist with basic food shortages. As one Soviet representative told the baron, "Our life is like an exhibition: One of everything, but not more." In the topsy-turvy landscape of modernity, Russian reality rubbed against Russian dreams. "We are poor and shall be poorer still," states a communist apologist. "But all the same, sooner or later, our country of huts shall become a country of palaces."
Below are some favorite quotations from the book.
"You do Berlin a disservice, baron. We too have mastered a few things: ersatz, for instance, and the metaphysics of factionalism--"
"Not at all: Life, like any ware, is subject to supply and demand. Have newspapers and wars not taught you that?"
"I flatter myself that I have made better and wider use than other barons of my right to flights of fancy."
"Yes, ladies and gentlemen, now you must not object. In your hands you hold not only glasses of champaign; you have opened a savings account for me in Being."
"Russia, unhurrying, ever in slow motion"
"On arriving in Moscow, I must find out how long the supplies of Russian literature will last."
"At this I raised my eyebrows and indeed I did not lower them during my entire sojourn in Moscow. Prepared for extraordinary things, my heart pounding, I now entered that city build on blood and mystery."
"Yes, I had at once to admit that you cannot outrun technology. Even phantasms cannot outstrip it."
"here I was in a country of superstitious know-nothings..."
"I told him he should be ashamed, at his hoary age, of trading God for socialism."
"I applied my spurs, but you cannot gallop away from four-legged horses on a two-legged one."
"I drew up a plan to rationalize brigandage."
"people are kind so long as you don't contradict them."
"These men had enviable lungs (the Russian people develop their lungs by blowing on their samovars)..."
"an asthmatic man was running, butting the air with his bald pate"
"My interlocutor spoke tersely (without incidental or dependent clauses), preferring question marks to all others. He put his questions the way people put buckets and basins under cracks in the ceiling ahead of rain, and waited."
"Our life is like an exhibition: One of everything, but not more."
"We are poor and shall be poorer still. But all the same, sooner or later, our country of huts shall become a country of palaces."
"His laugh lengthened, then shortened the crack of his mouth, like an aperture during a short exposure."
"So then, all of our penmen are given a choice: feast or famine. Some work steadily; others starve."
"The Dictionary of Omissions: Complete and Unabridged"
"Revolution's notorious broom, which raises more dust than it sweeps out, tried to sweep the idealists out of Russia's house, but of course, so I reflected, many of them got stuck in the doorway"
"Have you noticed that the crows of Tsverskoi Boulevard, instead of cawing, have started hurrahing? Now what could be the point?"
"And when we became angelless, the smoke rose up from space to time and so began our beclouded (as through a haze) Time of Troubles. Time itself became troubled and the centuries confused, the thirteenth with the twentieth, and then: revolution."
"Look at the street-clocks disks: are their hands not trembling with disgust, flicking off the seconds' soot and cinders? Are your eyes not crying, stung by the smoke of the times?"
"..lives fenced off by denunciations and chekaneries; raise your eyes to theirs and you see pupils like point-blank muzzles."