Book Review: The Czar’s Madman

The Czar’s Madman: A Novel, by Jaan Kross

From time to time, as the mood strikes me, I enjoy reading the occasional historical novel [1].  Since this particular novel was written by an Estonian and contains a great deal of historical context about the situation of Baltic Germans during the Tsarist period, as well as the early attempts by native Estonians to develop a national  literary culture, I thought this would be a good novel to read in order to gain some understanding of the literary culture of Estonia in general, even if my inability to read Estonian means that I had to read this work in translation, with all of the concerns that translations bring when it comes to being true to their original in terms of tone and mood.  It should be noted at the outset that this novel is a highly interesting one for a variety of reasons, and that the translation appears to be faithful to the author’s intentions of claiming as a novel a work that simultaneously has pretensions to historical truth, which the author goes to great lengths in order to convey, almost apologizing for not having published this as a a scholarly work but instead of a fictional one.  I suppose I cannot be too harsh at someone whose works straddle the line between narrative fiction and historical fact, as my own life and my own writings have straddled that line before as well.

It is clear that a certain amount of narrative pleasure has been sacrificed to give the appearance of historical truth by giving this novel the appearance of a journal of an educated native Estonian of the first half of the 19th century who nevertheless shows no aptitude for business.  In reading this novel I was reminded of other novels I have read in the past that similarly blended fact and fiction in unsettling ways, like Chronicle of a Death Foretold where the author was attempting to expiate his own guilt for having taken the virginity of an overprotected young woman, leading to the death of an innocent man, and this book especially resembles Memoirs of a Geisha in the elaborate construction of a plausible origin for the novel’s contents and form and its strong desire to be seen as a work of historical truth and not merely a work of fiction.  There are other reasons why this novel is particularly Nathanish.  Its narrator is an educated but rather impoverished gentleman who has a fondness for young redheads and a compulsion to write and to keep a chronicle of his life and his thoughts and reflections even though what is contained is highly dangerous to his own well-being in the face of Russian censoring.  The titular character of the novel, the narrator’s brother-in-law, is an idealistic Baltic German noble, and an illegitimate descendant of Tsar Peter the Great, married a lovely Estonian peasant and wrote a memorandum that was guilty of lese majeste by commenting on the unsavory and improper conduct of the Russian regime and harshly abusing the wickedness of arbitrary and tyrannical government at the cost of nine years of jail, a blackened reputation, and the loss of his teeth.  I am reminded of my own unpleasant encounters abroad with the police state of certain nations in all of this [2].  I find it troubling that it should be so easy to find people like myself in literature and so hard to find a suitable place or a suitable mate for myself in real life, although as someone who spends so much time writing and dealing with books it should be of little surprise that I should so closely resemble the historical and fictional personages that I discover in them.

The contents of this book are particularly interesting, it should be noted.  Told in journal form, the story centers on the efforts of the narrator to convey the truth about the supposed madness of one Timo von Bock, as he serves as a friend to his beautiful sister Eeva, and as he engages in his own furtive efforts at romance as an aging bachelor who eventually marries and has a daughter of his own.  The story is both commonplace as well as gripping, and it is easy to imagine why someone who was well-educated in French as well as Russian and Estonian and who thought that the relationship between the Russians and Baltic Germans with the native Estonian underclass was beyond hopeless, would seek to write and reflect about the efforts of an idealistic German to argue for equality despite the centuries of oppression that had existed between the Estonians and their German overlords and their Russian imperial masters.  This novel did a good job in providing the context to the efforts of Estonians to develop, belatedly, a literary culture and in the basic insecurity of the nation in light of their long centuries of oppression and their position between much more powerful and grasping neighbors.  One cannot help but have a sympathy for the author and his people, being a fair-minded sort of person who cheers on the underdog as I happen to be, and as someone who has kept my own voluminous journal I found the tone struck by the journal and its contents to be good.  Whether or not this book has genuine historical truth in it is beyond my competence to say, but it does make for a compelling historical novel that does provide a great deal of context to Estonian feelings toward Germany and Russia, as well as providing an interesting story that deals with politics and romance, and that leaves the reader with the thought that reading good literature “gives me the chance to hope even where there may be no hope (348).”

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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5 Responses to Book Review: The Czar’s Madman

  1. Pingback: Book Review: Read On…Historical Fiction | Edge Induced Cohesion

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