The Czar's Madman

Jaan Kross

translated from the Estonian by Anselm Hollo
Harvill Press 1992 [1978]
A book review by Danny Yee © 1996
Estonian nobleman Timotheus von Bock, friend and confidant of Tsar Alexander I, was an idealist. Not only did he marry one of his peasants, but in 1818 he wrote a memorandum to the Tsar saying exactly what he thought of him. Incarcerated in prison as a result, he was freed in 1827 on grounds of insanity but remained under surveillance. Such is the historical background to Kross' novel The Czar's Madman, which purports to be a journal kept by Jakob, the brother of Timo's wife. (An afterword explains how much of the novel is factual.)

While Jakob is a rather dispassionate observer and the reader never really identifies with any of its characters, The Czar's Madman still compels. It has elements of a detective story, as Jakob gradually uncovers the truth behind Timo's arrest and the details of his imprisonment (and later the truth about his death). At the same time he must cope with the vagaries of life under an absolute monarchy, hiding his journal, trying to arrange a flight into exile, and all the time wondering whether Timo really is mad. There is also interest in his own love affairs and in the finely wrought portrait of Estonian society in the early nineteenth century.

Kross is another novelist I had never previously heard of, for whom I will henceforth keep a close watch. Apparently he has written a number of historical novels, though I foresee some trouble finding English translations of them.

March 1996

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%T The Czar's Madman
%A Kross, Jaan
%M Estonian
%F Hollo, Anselm
%I Harvill Press
%D 1992 [1978]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 0002712016
%P 352pp