No one has journeyed to as many foreign lands as Baron Munchausen. Nor, when it comes time to fire a cannon, will readers find anyone more accurate. The comfort of courtly life is as natural to him as the harshest polar desert. On the subject of politics and science he has no equal. And all discussion of the moon must start and stop with the only man who has ever been there. His feats of prowess are famed the world over. Who else could leap a hedgerow with a carriage and horse on their back? No one. And then of course there are the bears.
Travel books have changed through the ages, first it was make stuff up or borrow local legends to sell copies and these days there seems to be a trend to the more comical ‘look at what I did’ type of literature but artistic license can only take you so far.
The Baron however is the quintessential traveller, he has many achievements and accolades to his name, even managing to parody the future and past of a genre. It’s is definitely his most impressive feat which is saying something, as he has taken a trip to the moon, been trapped inside a giant fish, killed a bear with only two flints and single-handedly disarmed an army to name but a few.
As the astounding Munchausen is quick to point out to his detractors all of his feats are true (and he will fight anybody who says otherwise), Lemuel Gulliver, Sinbad and Aladdin will all attest to this and having read his journal lustily, I am in full agreement of those historical figures.
I did want to love this book and did for the first half, it gets going straight away, has fast paced short and snappy set pieces which keep the comedy quick-fire. The Barons adventure’s are a delight as he gallivants around the world, constantly inverting the laws scientists believe to be immutable making his legend all the more impressive.
Part of the trouble with the up and down nature of the back half of the book comes from the introduction of other authors who have added to the biography of our hero. The structure of the narrative is less set piece comedy and more traditionally structured. For me it just doesn’t work as well, everything is slowed up and as a consequence did start to feel a bit of a chore towards the end.
I’m sure the bits I wasn’t keen on will be a joy to other people, it does have a lot of nods to classic travel literature and taken by itself it is a good read to be fair but after the strong start and the constant comedy it was just too jarring, it is best appreciated as two separate books.
The timeless appeal of Munchausen’s raucous travels comes from a fusion of the artistic licence of the travel writing and the occasionally bawdy and always amusing humour. It’s a knowing nod to a public that appreciates a good yarn that is fused with the odd fact, there are plenty of times when something is explained away by adding information after the fact to make something perfectly feasible, that would have seen the author painted into a corner otherwise.
It’s that inventiveness and lighthearted eccentricity that has it in the same genre as Alice in Wonderland, albeit less about inventive wordplay and more about comic whimsy. It apes the genre and the classic authors with its exaggerated, scarcely believable, tongue in cheek fun and would be a boisterous addition to any book shelf.