Theodore Kröger: The Forgotten Village

October 18, 2015

51u3TCAJy4L._AA160_Well, this was astonishing, and unforgettable. A bestseller in the 1930s when first published, it’s not been reprinted in English for sixty years, but fortunately the French haven’t forgotten it.

Son of a German watchmaker, settled for many years in Tsarist Russia, the author of what’s described as an ‘autobiographical novel’ (interesting genre, that) attempts to flee to Germany at the start of the First World War, but is captured, condemned to death as a spy and then instead exiled to the wastes of northern Siberia.

Initially he suffers as a prisoner in horrendous conditions, but eventually, thanks to powerful connections in St Petersburg, his life in exile is made rather easier and he rises to prominence in a settlement in the middle of nowhere, becoming the bosom friend of the local police chief. Eventually, through his connnections and family fortune he succeeds in bringing some prosperity and development to the town, ameliorated the living conditions of the thousands of German POWs in the area, and marries a local Tartar girl.

The writer’s love of the place and its people develops and becomes clear, shining through the pages; it’s evident that though unbelievably harsh, Siberia is a beautiful place, in a space and time continuum of its very own. And he discovers a remote village, completely cut off from the ‘outside’ world, which he and his fellow-prisoners aid to become completely self-sufficient and to hide itself from the coming ravages of the Revolution…

There are moments of true horror in his story: a nearby village is stricken by the plague, and in order to stop it spreading, they massacre all its inhabitants and burn the village down. The Kerensky government orders the release of all common criminals: these begin to wreak havoc on the town, and are all eventually killed or driven away.

The writer explores some of the totally unknown areas of the country and he and his companions come across a ghost town, its inhabitants all long dead in their homes; then they discover a large settlement of savages who still hunt with bows and arrows, and manage (just) to escape with their lives.

The utter chaos after the October Revolution is appalling; whole swathes of the country are abandoned to cold and famine and the winter of 1917/18 is atrocious; very few of the several thousand townspeople come through alive…

Some of the story stretches credulity just a little, I think to myself as I read, but then I recall other accounts of Siberia a century ago that I’ve read, and other travellers’ tales, and I think, no, this could well all be true. If in the late 1970s a small settlement could be found, of people who had seen not another living soul for over forty years, then Kroger’s account could be true. It doesn’t read like a novel: there’s no plot, the narrative is linear, people come and go as the author moves around. It’s very powerful, and very moving.

7 Responses to “Theodore Kröger: The Forgotten Village”

  1. DK Fennell Says:

    This is quite a find. I tried finding an English version and see from Worldcat that the closest is nearly 100 miles away in an offsite storage. Abebooks.com say I can get a “fair” copy for $55 and $17 shipping from South Africa.

    Luckily a closer library seems to have the original German version Das vergessene Dorf, vier Jahre Sibirien. But I can’t borrow it so will have to struggle there bringing along my condensed Muret-Sanders. I also noted another library had a novel of 1951, apparently by him (or someone with the same name) titled Sturm über dem Himalaja. I may take a look at that.

    In any event, are you aware of the long line of fictionalized autobiographies in Russian literature. It started with the trilogy of Sergei Aksakov, but Tolstoy himself in the genre (Childhood and Youth). Even Dr. Zhivago, I think, owes to this genre. This generally involves an idealized childhood, then education of adolescence and finally the reality of adulthood. I don’t suppose Kröger follows this model, but the “autobiographical-novel” has legitimate Russian roots. My favorite is Konstantin Paustovsky’s Story of a Life, which Pantheon publishes in English. I highly recommend it.

    Thanks for the review of Kröger.

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  2. litgaz Says:

    I wasn’t aware of the fictionalised autobiography tradition in Russian literature, so that’s something new for me to explore – thank you for that.

    Lest you are tempted to splurge on the English version of Kröger’s book, I’ll mention that when I finally discovered it, it seems to be an abridgement; whereas the French paperback I’ve just finished runs to 620 pages, the English one from the 1930s is only 320 pages, I think.

    I had fun trying to track down some of the places mentioned in the book in my atlas, too.

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  3. Das vergessene Dorf,Ich las es zum ersten mal in deutscher Sprache in 1953 ,es ist ein Geschenk an meinen Vater gewesen Zur Anerkennung fuer seine Hilfe bei der Ausbildung Von Luftwaffenrekruten ,in der damaligen Wehrmacht’ Im Shwimmen. Zur Anerkennung und Ehrung ist dieser Commentar geschrieben.in Verehrung und Achtung Dein Sohn Guenther!

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  4. […] both of the following have pretty much the same number of reads. There’s Theodore Kroeger’s The Forgotten Village – I’m not sure why so many have wanted to read about this obscure volume; it’s recently been […]

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  5. Annie Says:

    I was so excited to stumble upon this. I’ve had the French version of this book for over 12 years, but never read it. I bought it to fill a book shelf and had no idea of its relevance. No matter how long it takes for me to translate/understand it, I will delve into the pages for the history is rich and we must never forget.

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  6. […] some none at all, I fear. I’m astonished at the ones visitors flock to – Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village seems to head the list at the moment, closely followed by Derek Guiton’s A Man That Looks on […]

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  7. […] new fiction this year. I’ve blogged about as often as previously, and still Theodore Kroger’s The Forgotten Village is one of my most popular hits, as is John Danby’s Shakespeare’s Doctrine of […]

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