Thursday, August 10, 2006

The Czar's Madman

Book Number 6: The Czar's Madman, by Jaan Kross
Country: Estonia

Timotheus von Bock was declared mad by the Emperor, and for nine years was incarcerated in the icebound Schulusselburg castle with only a grand piano for company. Jakob, Timo's brother in law, begins a secret diary on the day that Timo is released in 1827, relating his investigations into Timo's state of mind, the reasons for his imprisonment, and his unexpected discoveries.

The Czar's Madman is a historical novel, based on real occurences and real people. Through Timo, Jan Kross criticises the totalitarian regimes of the Czars of post-Napoleonic Russia, the repression of free expression, and the failure of the nobility to empathise with the working classes. An aristocrat idealist, Timo von Bock's passion for proving the "equality of all human beings before nature, God and his ideals" led him to marry a woman from a peasant family in a practise-what-you-preach move. Later on, honouring an oath he swore to the Emperor to always tell him the truth for the benefit of the people the Emperor ruled over, Timo wrote a memorandum, the contents of which were deemed so shocking that the Emperor immediately proclaimed him to be insane, and Jakob agreed that to even write such a thing was insanity in itself, let alone allow the Emperor to read it.

The technique employed by Kross is highly effective - Jakob's resistance to the fact that Timo married his sister, provided both of them with an education, a home, an income, all contrast with Timo's enthusiasm for and belief in the equality of all men. Jakob is an example of the ignorance and unwillingness to change as exemplified by the typical man; he feels inferior to born noblemen, depite the fact that his education easily matches theirs, and resents the fact that his sister seems perfectly at ease in her new role as an aristocrat's wife. Jakob really serves to illustrate that although Timo's idealism is admirable, his conviction is incorrect - all men are not equal. Mostly, they're just human.

It took me a few pages to get into this book, but once I did, I almost couldn't put it down. A few other reviewers have noted that a knowledge of Russian/Estonian history would allow a deeper enjoyment and appreciation of the book, which I agree with. While I recognise the air of authenticity the diary format gives, no historical background information is included in the book, even on a page before the novel begins. On the plus side however, I feel as though I know more about European history (which isn't hard, since I never studied it and barely know who Napolean was!).

For more on Estonian writers, click here.


Dorothy W. said...

I like learning about history through fiction -- you absorb it in a different way.

The Traveller said...

So true! I hated history so much at school, and gave it up at 14. I think the perspectives you gain through literature not only present some facts and introduce real historical figures, but present subjective possibilities, whereas historians are about objectivity.

booklogged said...

Another one that goes on the list. Sure enjoy your reviews.