The Bookshelf: Journey to Russia.

Last month I mentioned Miroslav Krleža’s Journey to Russia; the publisher, ‎Sandorf Passage (which publishes writers from Europe and has a very interesting-looking list, including From Nowhere to Nowhere by Bekim Sejranović and Tatjana Gromača’s Divine Child, which will be out in October), was kind enough to send me a review copy, which I have now finished. I had mixed feelings, but I can confidently recommend it to anyone interested in foreign reactions to the NEP-era Soviet Union; it’s full of acutely observed details and good stories.

I should say at the outset that in a couple of respects it is not my cup of tea. In the first place, Krleža was a Communist, and his portrait is heavily colored by his beliefs: all capitalists, aristocrats, traders, etc., are slathered with hostile sarcasm, and all cloth-capped working men and Bolsheviks are seen as heroes bravely and selflessly building the future. There are a couple of worshipful chapters on Lenin and Leninism that I just skimmed, since they weren’t part of the travelogue. Of course in 1924-25, just after the death of Lenin, it was impossible to foresee what the country would become once Stalin took over, but it’s equally impossible for me to unknow that, and to pretend that the Soviet Union was ever a shining beacon of human dignity and freedom. And in the second place, Krleža’s style is so florid and laden with rambling personal associations I sometimes had to grit my teeth to get through a paragraph; here’s a brief sample, chosen at random:

There are also desperate, bloodstained, despondent Christs in Moscow’s churches, Nazarenes who have lost all hope for a change of the international political situation and quietly stare into emptiness like those intent on suicide and gamblers who have lost their last chip. One such Calvarian desperado hangs with a care-worn, sooty face in a golden frame and gazes like an Indian hypnotist at a procession of children that passes by, laughing at the sooty specters from the time of Ivan the Terrible — innocent children’s laughter, devilishly sublime. Today, Russian children giggle in churches like in museums of the weird and wonderful, looking at dead saints with the same distance with which we as children eyed African fetishes and idols. It is lovely to stand in a Moscow church and listen to the echoes of children giggling while the priest reads the Passion of Christ […]

That gives a taste of his constant mockery of religion, which also sets my teeth on edge, irreligious though I am. Militant atheism à la Richard Dawkins makes me want to take up the old rugged cross. But those are my personal quirks, which many do not share; I mention them only to explain my mixed reactions to the book. I should add that like many who straddle the border between fiction and travel-writing, Krleža makes a lot of stuff up; for instance, I learn from the notes to the Russian translation (which I found online) that “Admiral Sergei Mikhailovich Vrubel,” the hero of the chapter “The Admiral’s Mask,” is invented from whole cloth, presumably to allow the author to express ideas in a more personalized form. Those who admire the travel writing of (say) Ryszard Kapuściński and Bruce Chatwin will presumably not have a problem with this.

In the credit column are the descriptions of people and places; when he can restrain himself from ladling on the pathetic fallacies, he brings what he sees vividly to life. From the chapter on his arrival to Moscow:

Crows cawed from the golden onion domes of a Russian church, and it seemed as if rags had been incinerated nearby: the air was heavy with the acrid smell of burning cloth. A lady in black was sitting in front of the station in a convertible automobile and she seemed to be unusually tall […] A black-bearded man in a black caftan sat on a one-horse sleigh with a white coffin on his knees. After seeing that gravedigger, I was so surprised by that bizarre form of transport that I was torn between the stark lady and the man in black with the white coffin on his knees.

Or from the chapter “Easter Eve”:

In that festive buildup to Easter, windows puttied up all winter are opened for the first time, and people air their rooms through the fortochka, a miniature rectangular window. The pungent smell of Russia leather, fish soup, parquet oil, wet galoshes and boots, stuffy cupboards, dim halls, and think coats of winter dust — all those aromas of human habitation disperse in the icy draft for the first time since the fall.

But his best qualities are on display in the longest chapter, “The Far North.” Here he accompanies a comic foil on a business trip to “one of the northern governorate cities,” a “former residence of Ivan the Terrible”:

We arrived in that […] city accompanied by Mr. Karl Diefenbach, the general manager, director, and chief stockholder of the export firm Karl Diefenbach AG, from Hamburg. A heavily built gentleman in his sixtieth year with rose-colored skin, fair complexion, a blonde, greying, straight, brush-like British moustache, with an uncommonly bright, starched and ironed shirtfront, priggishly clean, stiff collar and cuffs — general manager Diefenbach had three pet topics: the Battle of Sedan, Admiral von Tirpitz, and angina pectoris.

The catch is that he is visiting the family that used to own the lumber mill from which he has a contract with the state to buy wood, and he is so close to the family that in tsarist times he was godfather to one of their children. Now, of course, they are barely hanging on as employees of the state, confined to a small part of what was once their mansion, and the lady of the house, Anna Ignatyevna, is so bitter that she can barely maintain the remnants of her former genteel politeness when talking with her visitor, and eventually it wears off completely. The clueless Diefenbach keeps asking about acquaintances they have in common, and she answers as follows:

“He died, ha ha. How did he die? A normal death, ha ha, no, no, no, the gentleman from Hamburg thinks people here die a normal death, ha ha, yes, yes, yes, he died of hunger, and Nikolai Pavlovich, he disappeared. No, no, I didn’t mean it literally, he didn’t ‘disappear,’ but he ‘dis-ap-peared,’ at least we know how he disappeared. And lovely Katya — she was born a Golenishchev, you know — she was shot, but her sister is an admiral’s wife and in Paris, yes, yes, yes, she’s an admiral’s wife in Paris, her brother-in-law is a prince, the ambassador is in Paris too, yes, yes, he’s a taxi driver, but they’re happy, free, they’re doing fine. And poor Sasha is no more either. His only child, a daughter, Duchess Alya, is singing in Riga in an operetta ensemble.”

The Hamburg gentleman went on asking his foolish questions (o sancta simplicitas!), and Anna Ignatyevna answered in her macabre telegraphic style […] as if an endlessly long Morse tape flowed from her lips […] and that ribbon grew like a never-ending spiral of death and despair […]

Diefenbach reminded me of Maugham’s Mr Harrington from Ashenden (in the story called “Mr Harrington’s Washing”; it starts at ch. XIV, “A Chance Acquaintance,” in this Project Gutenberg edition) — the comfortable Western businessman who has no frame of reference for what he sees in Russia is an eternal type. Krleža plays the scene brilliantly; it may be superfluous to point out that it as well as all the characters are probably invented (Google knows of no “Karl Diefenbach AG”), but who cares? It shows the hand of a born novelist (and has little trace of the rote pro-Bolshevik propaganda of other parts of the book), and it makes me want more than ever to read his novel On the Edge of Reason (which I’ve owned for years). It’s well worth buying the book for that chapter alone.

Not having access to the Croatian original, I can’t judge the accuracy of Will Firth’s translation, but it reads well. He made the occasional odd choice, like saying Admiral Vrubel had “surrendered his espada into the hands of the Japanese admiral” at Port Arthur (the Russian has “свою саблю” [his saber], and “saber” seems like it would make more sense here) and (on p. 13) saying “the gentlemen of the time hunted game in their red parforce tailcoats” (there is apparently a term chasse de parforce ‘riding to hounds,’ but as far as I can see “parforce tailcoats” means nothing in English), but that’s a quibble; there are a few typos, but the only ones worth pointing out for correction in a later edition (those that might confuse the reader) are on p. 8 (“From the Secession to Dada” should be “From the Secession to Dada,” although really there’s no need for any italics there, and the end-quote on the same line should be an asterisk — it’s a footnote) and on p. 18 (“leaden heavily” should be “laden heavily”). Also, at the bottom of p. 93 “Pavel Nikolaevich” should be “Alexei Nikolaevich” — it took me a while to work out what was wrong there.


  1. Simplicissimus says

    Krleža’s real masterpiece is the Balade Petrice Kerempuha, but the hyper-erudite neo-baroque literary Kajkavian he constructed for the work would be a beast to have to translate. The folk punk group Cinkuši did some fantastic musical adaptations of some of the poems, though, e.g., Ciganjska ( and Nenadejano bokčije zveličenje ( The poem best known to Croatian readers, though, are Khevnhiller (“Nigdar ni tak bilo / da ni nekak bilo…” – set to music by Dario Rundek here: and Planetarijom, a bitter eulogy for Kajkavian as a literary language.

  2. Thanks! How do you rate Na rubu pameti?

  3. “Nigdar ni tak bilo / da ni nekak bilo…”

    This brings to mind good soldier Švejk. A bit of googling and here it is

    Jako jsem znal jednoho uhlíře, kerej byl se mnou zavřenej na začátku války na policejním ředitelství v Praze, nějakej František Škvor, pro velezrádu, a později snad taky vodpravenej kvůli nějakej pragmatickej sankci. Ten člověk, když se ho u vejslechu ptali, jestli má nějaký námitky proti
    protokolu, řek:
    Ať si bylo, jak si bylo, přece jaksi bylo,
    ještě nikdy nebylo, aby jaksi nebylo.

    Potom ho za to dali do temný komůrky a nedali mu nic jíst a pít po dva dny a zas ho vyvedli k vejslechu, a on stál na svým, že ať si bylo, jak si bylo, přece jaksi bylo, ještě nikdy nebylo, aby jaksi
    nebylo. Může bejt, že šel s tím i pod šibenici, když ho potom dali k vojenskýmu soudu.

    Why make you copy it into GT if I can do it just as well:

    I knew a coal miner, he was locked up with me at the beginning of the war at the police headquarters in Prague for high treason, a František Škvor, he was later executed for some pragmatic sanction. When asked during questioning if he had any objections to the protocol, he replied:
    It was the way it was, because someway it was
    It never was that no way it was.

    Then they put him in a dark room [does it just mean solitary?] and gave him nothing to eat and drink for two days, and then brought him out again, but he insisted that it was the way it was, because someway it was, it never was that no way it was. He might have went with it even to the gallows, after he was brought before a military court.

  4. AG Diefenbach [hier AG = Arbeitsgruppe, not Aktiengesellschaft]

  5. I’ve seen the phrase “ніколи так не було, щоб ніяк не було” and figured it was some kind of Ukrainian saying.

    Who would have thought that it was a quote from good soldier Švejk.

    PS. Perhaps the Croatian phrase is from the same origin – they do love to read Hašek there.

  6. PlasticPaddy says

    At the time of interest, the directors would have been Richard and Georg Diefenbach, no Karl is referenced. Also they had their factory at Solingen (near Düsseldorf), not in Hamburg. The factory survived the war and started to make coffins in 1958, selling these also to the French market.
    I cannot find anything about state contracts, but they could have bought Russian lumber for the factory.

  7. Wow, great sleuthing! I withdraw my insinuation that he invented the whole thing, though I’m sure he embellished it. Thanks for that!

  8. David Marjanović says

    He could easily have made it up; the name isn’t that rare.

  9. Sure, but are you suggesting that it has no relation to a Diefenbach company that dealt in lumber and was founded in 1876, plenty of time to establish ties with a tsarist family? That seems like quite a coincidence.

  10. Simplicissimus says

    1) I’m ashamed to say that Na rubu pameti remains on my to-read list. I gather that it and Povratak Filipa Latinovicza are his most-read novels in Croatian?

    2) It’s impossible not to conjecture that Krleža and Hašek are both quoting a common saying on the Galician front (as continued by the Ukrainian saying).

    3) It’s rather a shame that Krleža didn’t translate Švejk. On the one hand, Krleža knew the Austro-Hungarian Army inside and out as an officer cadet (before the war), as a military prisoner, and as a conscript on the Galician front. On the other, Švejk would have transposed *perfectly* to the urban Kajkavian of Zagreb that Krleža spoke natively. He must surely have been aware of Švejk at the time, but he had his own bitter experience of the war to process. There is, however, a relatively recent translation of Švejk into urban Kajkavian by Nada Gašić, which seems to be well-regarded.

  11. Simplicissimus says

    I should clarify, though, that Krleža the novelist writing in standard Štokavian would have made no sense whatsoever as a translator of Švejk. However, a translation of Švejk by the author of the Balade Petrice Kerempuha would have been a masterpiece in its own right.

  12. Of course, his best known work by far is Gospoda Glembajevi.

  13. David Marjanović says

    dealt in lumber and was founded in 1876

    Oh, I overlooked that.

  14. Chernomyrdin’s “никогда так не было, и вот опять:-(“

  15. Вещи бывают великими и малыми не токмо по воле судьбы и обстоятельств, но также по понятиям каждого.

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