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Jaan Kross: Keisri hull (The Czar’s Madman)

If all Estonian literature is like this novel, we are clearly missing a lot by having so little of it available in English. For this is a first-class novel, well deserving of all the praise heaped on it. It is the story of Timotheus von Bock, a minor 19th century Livonian nobleman who was close to Czar Alexander (the real von Bock was a descendant of Peter the Great). He committed the crime of writing a memorandum to the Czar criticising the Czar and his reign. Initially, we and most of von Bock’s friends, assume that this was a very mild missive which the ultrasensitive Czar took offense to. However, the narrator of the story, von Bock’s brother-in-law, accidentally finds the manuscript and it is gradually revealed to us during the course of the book. Though written in a formal and polite style, it is damningly critical of the Czar and all his works and we can only be amazed that the Czar did not react more strongly.

Von Bock is condemned to prison, leaving behind his wife, Eeva (he has made a morganatic marriage, a far greater eccentricity than it might seem), their son Jüri and the brother-in-law/narrator. At the start of the book, he is just returning from prison, having been released, because he is clearly mad. He spends the rest of the novel on his estate, living the life of a mild-mannered, endearing eccentric. The question posed by Kross is simply Is a man of principle, an eccentric man, mad? Kross does not let us get away with an easy answer. Von Bock is clearly loyal to the Czar – both Alexander and his successor, Nicholas, not least because he has sworn an oath to Alexander that he will always tell him the truth (this oath being, at least in part, the reason for his memorandum). He is certainly endearing. And he is certainly eccentric. He is given the opportunity to escape the country but turns down the offer because of the taste of loganberries back home. And his memorandum, while clearly written by a naïve but principled man, is clearly going to be unacceptable to any monarch, let alone a tyrannical one like Alexander.

But what makes this novel so delightful is the way that Kross portrays von Bock in a sympathetic manner, while at the same time bringing out his eccentricities and leaving us, as well as the other characters, genuinely in doubt as to whether he is mad or not. The whole life on a run-down Estonian manor, the courage of Eeva and the attempts of the narrator to make a life for himself while, at the same time being irresistibly attached to his brother-in-law’s family despite the fact, as he tells us on more than one occasion, that he does not love his sister, all add the to the picture. Kross manages, by focusing on only a remote backwater of the Russian Empire, to give us a first-class portrait of the turmoil going on throughout Europe at that time and any writer who can paint the world from a very small and insignificant part of it is, without doubt, a great writer.

Publishing history

First published 1978 by Eesti Raamat
First published in English 1992 by Harvill