Though Baron von Munchausen preferred slippers to gaiters and leisure to work, he soon had to give up his postprandial snooze and stay-at-home life. The smoke from his old pipe was easily dispersed with the palm of his hand, but the roar “made” by that smoke was swelling with the abandon of ocean breakers. The telephonic ear, which had hung peacefully from its metal hook in the baron’s study, now fidgeted incessantly on its stand. The door knocker knocked without respite at the oaken door, telegrams and letters poured in from all parts, staring up at Munchausen with their round postmarks. Among them the baron’s absently skimming eyes came across an elegant invitation printed on card stock in old-fashioned script: a group of admirers requested the honor of Baron Hieronymus von Munchausen’s presence at a fete to celebrate the bicentennial of the esteemed baron’s career. The Anniversary Committee. Splendid Hotel. Date and hour.
The formal rooms of the Splendid Hotel glittered with electric lights innumerable. The plate-glass entrance door, soundlessly revolving, admitted more and more guests. The round central hall had been draped with the Munchausen coat of arms: along the shield’s heraldic bend five ducks flew—bill, tail, bill, tail, bill—threaded on a string; from under the last tail, in roman letters, streamed the motto: MENDACE VERITAS.*
Seated at long tables forming an Old Slavonic M were women in décolleté and men in full dress—members of the diplomatic corps, prominent columnists, philanthropists, and financiers. Champagne glasses had already clinked many times and rapturous cheers flown up to the ceiling after the corks when the baron rose to respond.
“Ladies and gentlemen,” he began, surveying the now-silent tables, “it says in the Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word.’ That means: Any deed must be begun with words. I said as much at the last international peace conference, and I take the liberty of repeating myself on the present occasion. We Munchausens have always faithfully served fiction: my ancestor Heino embarked with Frederick II on a Crusade, and a descendant of mine joined the Liberal Party. What can one say against that? History, meanwhile, brought us—myself and Kant—into the world at the same time. As this distinguished gathering no doubt knows, Kant and I are almost the same age, and it would be wrong at this celebration in my honor not to mention his name. Of course, I do have my differences with the creator of the Critique of Pure Reason. Where Kant says: ‘I know only what is introduced by me into my experience,’ I, Munchausen, say, ‘I introduce; let others try to know what I have introduced, if they have experience enough to do so.’ But on the whole, our thoughts have often coincided. Thus when I saw a platoon of Versaillais take up rifles and level them at unarmed Communards (this was by the walls of Père-Lachaise), I could not help but recall an aphorism coined by the old man of Königsberg: ‘Man is the ultimate purpose for man and should not be anything but the ultimate purpose.’ In one of his witty plays, Mr. Bernard Shaw”—the baron turned toward an end of the flower-trimmed M—“maintains that we do not live forever only because we do not know how to wish for our immortality. But I—and Mr. Shaw will forgive me—have come much closer to the secret of immortality: I need not myself wish to prolong my life to infinity; it is enough that others wish me, Munchausen, a long life. Indeed, it is owing to your wishes,” the baron’s voice trembled, “that I have set out on the path of Methuselah. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, now you must not object. In your hands you hold not only glasses of champagne; you have opened a savings account for me in Being. Today from that account I have withdrawn two hundred. Henceforth it shall be as you please: maintain the account or close it. In essence, you have only to shake me out of your pupils and I shall be as poor as Nothing itself.”
But these last words were washed away by a wave of applause, crystal tinkled against crystal as dozens of palms sought out that of the honoree; he barely managed to return all the smiles, to bow and express his thanks. Then tables were pushed against walls, violins and castanets struck up a fox-trot, and the baron, accompanied by several silvery pates, proceeded past the dancing pairs to the smoking room. They drew up chairs in a snug circle, and a diplomatic official, leaning toward the baron’s ear, made him a confidential offer. This moment, as will be seen, was portentous. In response to this offer Munchausen’s eyebrows rose, while the forefinger with the moonstone half tickled his ear, as if trying to test the words to the touch. Moving closer still, the official named a number. Munchausen hesitated. The official appended a zero to the number. Munchausen still hesitated. Finally, coming out of his quandary, he squinted at the moonstone’s dimly glinting oval and said, “I sojourned in those latitudes some hundred and fifty years ago, and I do not know, truly. . . . You have jogged the pendulum—it is oscillating between yes and no. Of course, I am not a man one can frighten or knock out of the saddle, so to speak. The experience of my first journey to that nation of barbarians just named by you, sir, afforded ample material for judgments both about them and about me. Incidentally, not counting a few minor publications, this material has never seen the light of day. My acquaintance with Russia took place during the reign of my late friend the empress Catherine the Great. However, I stray from the matter at hand.”
The diplomatic official, correctly calculating his chances, made a sign to the others, whose faces shone with rapt enthusiasm.
“It would be so interesting to hear.”
“I am all ears.”
“We are listening.”
An underling, swallowtails flying, ran to the door and motioned to the dancers; the fox-trot betook itself to a more distant hall. The baron began:
“As our diligence approached the frontier of that astonishing country, the landscape changed abruptly. This side of the frontier post lush trees bloomed; that side, snowy wastes stretched as far as the eye could see. While the horses were being changed, we traded our light riding cloaks for fur coats. Then the barrier rose and. . . . But I shall not tell you about the tunes that froze up in our postilion’s horn, or about my horse dangling from a church steeple, or many other adventures. Any cultivated person knows these stories no worse than his wallet or, shall we say, his prayers. Instead we shall stop the wheels of the diligence at the entrance to that barbarous nation’s northern capital, Petersburg.
“Here I must tell you that an earlier diligence had delivered to the city of Saint Peter a philosopher not unknown in his day, one Denis Diderot: he was, to my mind, a most intolerable scribbler of philosophemes, a petit bourgeois parvenu, and of a clearly materialistic bent to boot. I, as you know, have never suffered and do not suffer materialists, persons fond of reminding one—apropos and not so—that sweet-smelling ambergris is in fact the excrement of a sperm whale, while the fresh-cut flowers in which a lovely girl has hidden her face are in fact a blooming bunch of genitalia. Who needs that silly in fact? I am at a loss to conjecture. But to return. We were both received at court: Diderot and I. I must admit that at first the empress appeared to favor—if you can imagine it—that ill-mannered upstart: in perpetual breach of etiquette, Diderot might strut back and forth in front of her nose, interrupt her, and even, in the heat of argument, slap her on the knee. Catherine, smiling graciously, listened to all his nonsensical plans: to eradicate drunkenness in Russia, to fight bribe-taking, to reform manufacturing and trade, to rationalize fisheries on the White Sea. I remained in the shadows, calmly awaiting my chance. No sooner had that driveler in ink-spattered dress clothes set about enlarging fisheries than I too turned from plans to action: from local hunters I acquired several trap-caught foxes and began, in the walled backyard of the country house where I then dwelt, my own experiments—mentioned in my memoirs, if you recall—in the forcible eviction of foxes from their skins. Everything went on swimmingly, with no one the wiser. While Diderot was busy trying to catch fish from a frozen sea, I presented myself to the empress, by now somewhat disenchanted with her favorite, and requested the honor of her presence at a demonstration that might revolutionize the fur trade. On the appointed day and hour, the empress and her court arrived in my backyard. Four strapping footmen with whips and a fox tied by its tail to a post were at the ready. At a signal from me, the whips went to work till the fox, having jerked this way and that, jumped out of its skin—straight into the arms of a waiting fifth footman. Anyone who has read Darwin, gentlemen, knows the extraordinary adaptability of animals to their surroundings. Having jumped out into the bitter cold, the bald fox instantly began to grow a new coat which, though thin at first, thickened—right before our eyes—into a fine new pelt; the poor thing stopped shivering only to find itself, alas, tied to the post for a fresh flogging. And so on it went—just imagine—until there were seven pelts, and the fox finally jumped, so to speak, out of life. I had the carrion taken away, then laid the seven pelts out on the snow and, bowing down, said, ‘Seven hundred percent pure profit!’ The empress found this highly amusing and allowed me to kiss her hand. I was then asked to make a written report on methods and prospects for the fur trade, which I did on the spot. Having marked my report ‘wary goot,’ Her Majesty, in her own hand, crossed out every ‘fox’ and all ‘foxes,’ replacing these with a ‘person’ and ‘people,’ respectively. At the bottom she added: ‘As amended. Catherine.’ An original mind, don’t you think?”
The baron ran his eyes around the circle of smiles and went on. “After that Monsieur Diderot’s nose was distinctly out of joint, as if it had got jammed in his snuffbox an instant before the delicious whiff. The Paris sage, accustomed to a hail-fellow hand from both the truth and the tsarina, was now left with just the truth. Society entirely fitting for such a parvenu, ha-ha! The poor man hadn’t the means to take himself off home, so had to sell—for a few hundred livres—his library: it was acquired by the empress. She received me the very next day: I presented Her Majesty with a copybook full of my travels and adventures. Upon reading, she exclaimed, ‘This is worth whole libraries!’ I was granted an estate and one hundred thousand serfs. Wishing to escape from the adulation at court and certain circumstances of a more delicate nature, on which I shall not comment except to note that I am not overly fond of corpulent women, I set off to inspect my new possessions.
“The Russian landscape, I must tell you, is strange: in the midst of a field, like mushrooms under caps, a clutch of huts appears with roofs askew and chimneyless stoves; peasants pass into and out of these huts through the stovepipe, along with the smoke; towering over their wells, who knows why, are long sweep barriers, though often far from roads; their bathhouses, unlike the hovels they inhabit, are huge affairs of seven stories, or ‘shelves.’ But I digress.
“Wandering that foreign land I often recalled my native Bodenwerder: the pointed tile roofs like circumflex accents, the old graven mottos half effaced on whitewashed walls. Nostalgia compelled me to restlessly roam the hummocky bogs and reedy thickets with a rifle over my shoulder, if only to kill time. However, my game pouch was never empty, and soon my renown as a hunter—mentioned in my memoirs, but why repeat what any schoolboy knows by heart—had spread from the White Sea to the Black. Instead of snipes and partridges, I soon found myself hunting Turks. Russia, you see, had declared war on Turkey, and now I, having hung up my hunting rifle, had to take into these very hands, figuratively speaking, two hundred thousand guns, not counting the field marshal’s baton which, given my former relations with the tsarina, I felt I could hardly refuse. After the very first engagement we saw nothing but our enemies’ backs. At the battle on the Danube I captured one thousand, no, two thousand cannons, more cannons than we knew what to do with—whiling away our leisure in the field, we took potshots with them at passing sparrows. During one such lull in the fighting, I was called away from headquarters to the capital, where I was to be decorated with the Order of Basil the Blessed, a confection of fourteen golden crosses encrusted with diamonds. The verst posts flashed past my eyes faster than the spokes of my curricle’s wheels, which, now and then, I craned out of my seat to see. Racing into the capital on smoking axles, I bid the driver slow the horses so that I might tip my tricorne to the welcoming crowds on our way to the palace. Bowing right and left, I noticed that these Russians were none of them wearing hats. At first this struck me as a natural expression of their feelings for my triumphant self, but even after the official ceremonies were over, there they still stood, despite the cold wind from the sea, with bare heads. This struck me as somewhat strange, but there was no time for questions. Again the versts flashed past—and soon I saw the even ranks of my armies formed up to greet their leader. On coming closer, I saw that they too were hatless. ‘Cover your heads!’ I commanded, but—a thousand devils!—my command went unheeded. ‘What does this mean?’ I turned, incensed, to my aide-de- camp. ‘It means,’ he said, touching trembling fingers to his own uncovered head, ‘that we trounced the enemy at the drop of a hat, of all our hats, Your Most High Excell—’
“That night a sudden idea woke me under the mantle of my field marshal’s tent. I rose, dressed, and, without waking my orderlies, slipped away to the line of foreposts, whereupon two short words—password and watchword—opened the way for me to the Turkish camp. The Turks were still busy extricating themselves from the waist-deep heaps of hats, so I reached the gates of Constantinople unhindered, but there too everything was buried and behatted, right up to the rooftops! On arriving at the sultan’s palace, I gave my name and received an immediate audience. My scheme was extremely simple: to buy up all the hats bedeviling soldiers, residents, roads, and paths. Sultan Mahmud did not know himself what to do with this embarrassment of hats and I was able to buy them for a song. By now autumn had turned to winter, and the still-hatless Russian populace was freezing, catching cold, grumbling, threatening to rebel and ring in a new Time of Troubles. The government could not rely even on the worthies: the senators’ bald pates were the first to freeze and their fervent love for the throne was cooling by the day. So I loaded ships and caravans with my hats and sent them through neutral countries to myriad-headed Russia. Trade was extremely brisk: the lower the mercury fell in thermometers, the higher hat prices climbed.
“Soon millions of hats had returned to their rightful heads and I was the richest man in war- and indemnities-ravaged Turkey. By now the sultan and I were as thick as thieves and I had decided to invest my capital in rebuilding his country. However, palace intrigues obliged the sultan, his harem, and myself to change residence: we moved to Baghdad, a city rich if not in gold and silver, then in tales and legends. Again I began to long for my faraway Bodenwerder which, though wretched, was dear to my heart. When I asked my crowned friend to allow me to return home, he, tears trickling into his beard, said he would not survive the separation. Well then, wishing to shorten as far as possible those inevitable separations—for I too could not live without paying occasional visits to the ancestral aerie of my forefathers—I decided to connect Bodenwerder and Baghdad with parallel tracks of steel. Thus arose my project—implemented only much later, alas—for a Baghdad railway. We were just about to begin work, but—”
The baron suddenly interrupted his story and fell silent, eyes fixed on the shimmering moonstone on the index finger of his right hand.
“But why did you stop halfway?” burst from someone’s lips.
“Because”—the baron turned to the voice—“at the time railways, you see, had not yet been invented. As simple as that.”
Faint laughter ran around the circle. But the baron remained serious. Leaning toward the diplomatic official, he nudged the man’s knee and said, “My memories have overwhelmed me. All right. I will go. As they say in Moscow: ‘When a Russian is at death’s door, a German feels fit as a fiddle.’ Ha-ha!”
And raising his voice to meet the ears craning from all sides, the baron added: “Yes, our heraldic duck has never yet folded its wings.”
Now there ensued a shaking of hands and shuffling of feet. A minute later the porter by the revolving glass panes at the entrance to the Splendid Hotel was shouting, “Baron von Munchausen’s motorcar!”
A door clicked shut, a siren rent the air, and the leather cushions, gently swaying, sailed off into the glorious night brilliant with stars and streetlights.
* Truth in lies. (Latin)
From THE RETURN OF MUNCHAUSEN. Used with permission of NYRB. Copyright © 2016 by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.