A SEPARATE WORLD: JAN KROSS, ‘THE CZAR’S MADMAN’

 

 

On its publication in Soviet Tallinn in 1978, Keisri Hull (literally, ‘The Emperor’s Crazy’) sold an impressive 32,000 copies. Kross’s paradox – is von Bock mad or does his truth-telling illuminate the ‘insane’ world in which he lives? – appeared to mirror the Brezhnevian psychiatric asylums and the misuse of medical diagnoses in the USSR to silence dissidents. The émigré Russian director Andrei Tarkovsky (who shot parts of Stalker in Tallinn) had reportedly wanted to film the novel but died before the project could materialize. It opens in 1827 on von Bock’s release from Schlüsselburg; all his teeth have been knocked out by janitors and he cuts a pitiful figure as he enters house arrest on his Estonian estate. A decade earlier in Estonia, his egalitarian principles had led him to educate and marry a local-born chambermaid called Eeva Mattik (she had been released from serfdom for the price of four English hounds) but he was no sooner married than, in 1818, the Tsar imprisoned him. Eeva’s brother, Jakob Mattik, a teacher, has meanwhile discovered a draft of the Baron’s memorandum to the Tsar and rescued from the fire a sheaf of his letters and a boxful of official papers. Though yellowing and freckled brown with age, the material serves Jakob as the basis for his own meditations on Tsarist repression and the nature of the Baron’s imputed ‘madness’.

The Czar’s Madman, a work of Tristram Shandy-like digressions and reflections on the nature of literary ‘truth’, is narrated by Jakob in the form of a journal that spans twenty-odd years up to the Baron’s mysterious death (was he murdered or did he take his own life?) in 1836. Into his journal Jakob incorporates extracts from the inflammatory memorandum and seeks to reconstruct the events leading up to the Baron’s arrest and incarceration. He writes partly in German. Estonians who had managed to escape serfdom could only do so if they spoke German, or Low German, a language considered at that time second only to ancient Greek. Jakob’s rise from ‘peasant stock’ to become a man who is able to identify a Claude Lorrain engraving or a Schubert symphony was extraordinary but not without precedent in the Baltic under the Tsars. A century earlier, in 1742, a freed African slave named Abram Gannibal had been appointed Tallinn’s military commander by Peter the Great’s daughter Elizabeth, Empress of Russia. Gannibal happened to be the maternal great-grandfather of Alexander Pushkin. Kross had long wanted to write the story of the Cameroon-born Gannibal; but, it seems, he decided instead to chronicle that of von Bock.

 

 

The Czar’s Madman is brocaded with period detail. The drawing-rooms where people read literature in one corner and play chess in another are familiar to us from Russian literature. So, too, are the many visitors to von Bock’s estate who come in from the snow for glasses of tea in the long wintry nights. Jakob’s affinity with Baltic nature (what he calls his ‘swaying, separate world’) adds to the novel’s vivid immediacy of detail:

 

We are surrounded by the quiet waters of the creek and the green curtain of reeds. Now and again a perch jumps, or a mallard takes off, slapping the water. The reeds rustle. Some stalks bend in curious ways. As you get closer, a single reed among millions becomes astoundingly unique: with its long narrow leaves, its dome-like top of hairy, brownish-violet spikelets, it is like a building, a flowering world of its own.

 

In spite of the climate of suspicion in mid-1970s Moscow, the Soviet authorities had been only too happy to help Kross research The Czar’s Madman. It may be that von Bock (his name means ‘stubborn’) was viewed favourably by the Soviet censors as a social Utopian and luminary of the German Enlightenment. The real-life Timotheus von Bock had been associated with the Decembrist revolt of 1825, when young Russian aristocrats rose against the Tsarist autocracy. When The Czar’s Madman finally appeared in Russian translation in 1985, Kross was relieved to find that it contained few distortions or deletions, despite the covert links he had made between Tsarist oppression and Soviet oppression. The novel could be read as an allegory about totalitarian communism but, equally, it could be an allegory about an absolutist nightmare anywhere. Under house arrest Von Bock, a prototype prisoner of conscience, has to deal with spies and informers, some with a worse conscience than others (one invites him to write his own surveillance reports for the authorities). But he refuses to be broken by either violence or bribery.

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