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Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky: Странствующее Странно (Stravaging Strange)

This book consists of three long(-ish) stories: Странствующее Странно (Stravaging “Strange), Катастрофа (Catastrophe) and Материалы к биографии Горгиса Катафалаки (Material for a Life of Gorgis Katafalaki) as well as some notes left behind by Krzhizhanovsky.

Yes, I too was mystified by the title. It turns out that stravage is an old Irish/Scottish word for wandering aimlessly about. Krzhizhanovsky was a keen traveleller but living in the Soviet Union when he did and having no money meant that most of his wandering was around Moscow.

Early on the narrator is told All railway timetables end by taking you there: to strange. He is talking to an old teacher about travelling and wants the teacher to tell him about his longest and hardest journeys: the sort that captures the earth in thousand-verst segments. He is somewhat surprised when the teacher tells him my longest and hardest journey shifted me in space only seventy feet. Forgive me, seventy-one and a half. The teacher proceeds to tell him how his professor gave him three phials with different coloured liquids. With these three liquids he could massively reduce his size, far more than say Gulliver and Tom Thumb. When he gets home he tries the first one. He is now minute. We follow his adventures. Obviously everything looks different and we get fascinating descriptions of how he now sees the world.

With a certain amount of difficulty he clambers outside and to the neighbouring property where an elderly professor and his wife live. He is of course interested in the wife but there are more adventures, including conversing with the King of Hearts on a playing card about what having two hearts means, meeting imps (it is these Imps who, settled inside peoples ears, know how to whisper lonely souls to death) and getting trapped in a thermometer.

Though he is away a long time, he does recover his size and finds that the old professor has died. He is now able to start an affair with the wife. Rather than wait, as one is supposed to, till worms had consumed the professor, we gave ourselves up to each other.

However he becomes suspicious of her fidelity so he takes the blue liquid which makes him even smaller. He had prepared her watch beforehand, as she takes it everywhere and sneaks into it where he encounters the fearsome time bacilli. But it goes wrong again when he is inadvertently put in an envelope and posted. On this occasion he enters the blood stream of the recipient of the letter and makes friends with the blood cells. It is both funny but also quite clever.

I found the second story less interesting as it consists of the philosopher Immanuel Kant ruminating on various topics, including chaos and catastrophe.

The third story is about an odd Russian who has a Greek name. We start with his unfortunate death and here as well as throughout the story poor Gorgis Katafalaki is mocked. From a young age, Gorgis gave himself up entirely—from top to toe—to his passion for investigation, excavation, and exploration. However he was not a good learner and found it difficult to retain things. Initially, he realises that he has not even vaguely mastered a single science so he invents katafalakology which he renames haustology. This is studying people who yawn. He carefully notes the different types of yawning but then a traumatic event occurs which puts him off haustology.

He decides hat he needs to find a polymath who can advise him. On browsing various leanred tomes he sees that Derselbe is a name that comes up frequently and Dr Derselbe appears to be adept in many disciplines. Derselbe is, of course, the German for the same and is used in German the way we use idem, i.e. meaning the same as the one above. Our hero, however, decides Dr Derselbe must be a genius and heads off to Germany to find him

We now follow his adventures abroad, which include meeting a meteorologist who is seemingly as incompetent as Katafalaki, becoming a dentist, trying to get by bus to a a town in France he has been recommended to see called Complet (i.e. the French for fiull) but never managing to do so, getting involved in a duel, walking every single street in London and returning to Russia to set up the Autonomous Republic of Obrs.

Everything he tries (including marriage) is something of a failure but he perseveres, even as Krzhizhanovsky mocks him.

The book ends with a selection from his notes, including various aphorisms and excerpts from his life.

The stories were first published in the 1920s but only published in Russian in 1991 and their appearance in English is a valuable addition to his oeuvre, particularly showing that not every Russian of that era was a social realist.

First published in 1991 by Sov (as part of the collection Сказки для вундеркиндов : повести, рассказы
First English translation in 2023 by Columbia University Press
Translated by Joanne Turnbull