"There was simply too much fun to be had."
Reality and three narrowly dodged death sentences kind of puts a damper on that illusion as 13-year old
Jacob Marateck, citing "the ignorance of youth and a desire for grand adventure," leaves his small Polish
hometown to seek some rudderless escapades in the Warsaw of the absorbing and often black-humored true
story The Accidental Anarchist.
Indeed, the adventures in this novel are many, and unforeseen. Varietyspiced
life mixed with historical events of the 1900s in Russia and Poland
sees Marateck moving on from student to baker's assistant, labor organizer
to an officer in the Russian army during the Russo-Japanese War of 1904
against the Japanese in China. Marateck has his own struggles close at
hand, too, in situations "in which the men under my command wanted to
kill me, simply for being a Jew, as much as the enemy did, simply for
being in the way."
At the same time, a fervent Marateck tries to contribute to the rumblings of
revolution then underway, intent on doing his bit in overthrowing Czar
Nicholas II — including joining in "amateur spy missions that would have
gotten a Hollywood screenwriter fired." But in the course of these
uncertain times, he is sentenced to death three times, the first two times for,
respectively, hitting a superior, and then for falling asleep on guard duty. Having narrowly averted
execution in most entertaining and unexpected fashion, Marateck is then left to face the harsh Russian and
Asian winters, surviving sub-zero nights, starvation-tested marches, and ongoing gun battles.
Returning to Warsaw to catch up with the revolutionaries, Marateck is arrested and sentenced to death
again. But three times's a charmed life, if you want to call it that, as he ultimately receives a reprieve and is
sent instead to a Siberian labor camp. After escaping his fate of hard labor and permanent exile in Siberia
with Warsaw's eccentric "King of Thieves," the two strive to survive while roaming the expanse of Russia
from Petersburg to Siberia. The objective: obtain false papers to travel home while avoiding the Secret
Police. With more adventures in different circumstances, the rollicking and rewarding second half of The
Accidental Anarchist, ensues.
It's all part and parcel of the the book's captivating plot that gets a big boost from the writing and the
characterization. "It is not the circumstances of our lives that determine who we are," notes Kranzler in her
Dedication, "but rather the way we choose to interpret them that defines our personalities and, to some
extent, our destinies."
In the author's first-person narrator Marateck, then, we have a likeable interpreter whose wit, selfdeprecation,
and hopefulness shape and shift the defining moments of the novel, and see us through the
grim circumstances of war and volatile political times. Through all that Marateck has experienced and
endured, the narrative outlook carries us through the bleakness and death with unflinching directness and
dark humor. We're placed in the midst of war or 24/7 evasions from the government officials, replete with
confusion, snafus, and Catch-22 frustrations.
And so, one page surrounds us in the chaos of battle and trench warfare, where Marateck helps transport a
would-be wounded lieutenant, who turns out "was without a head and probably had been for some time."
Then the turn of a page will put us smack dab in the absurd midst of a scene where a dithering general has
gotten his brigade lost: "We plodded on past devastated villages and frozen, long-unburied corpses until, at
sunrise, our general, perplexed, halted the column and politely asked some blank-faced Manchurian
peasants if they could tell him where to find the battlefield."
Somewhere in that gray area between dire and droll lies one (among other) Marx Brothers-moment in which
Marateck and his men had been seemingly "ditched": "Our battalion, it seemed, had been ordered to retreat
while we slept … and no one had bothered to wake us." The situation might have been considered darkly
amusing had the aftermath not been one of hardship and deadliness in wintry conditions over enemy lines.
Even Marateck, long inured to the harsh contingencies of wartime experience, had kicked up his
anticipatory dread and defenses a notch or two by now, saying "I'd never had any romantic notions of
combat being anything other than terrible, but I had not expected it to be this terrible."
But no matter what side of the emotional gamut is being explored, Kranzler's vivid and visceral writing,
anchored to the rock solid and consistent depiction of the protagonist and the force of history, makes for a
seamless and cohesive page-chaser. The fact that this is a labor of familial love no doubt helps, too: Awardwinning
playwright Kranzler, Marateck's granddaughter, is the daughter of Shimon and Anita Marateck
Wincelberg, who had previously translated the 28 notebooks that made up Marateck's diaries, publishing
the first 12 as The Samurai of Vishigrod. After her father passed away, Kranzler inherited the job of editing
and publishing the rest of her grandfather's diaries. Presumably because there was still a lot of work to do.
And maybe because "There was simply too much fun to be had."
At thirteen, Jacob Marateck left his home in a small Polish village to seek adventure in Warsaw. At twenty-one, he was conscripted into the Russian army just in
time for the Russo-Japanese War of 1904, and over the next few years joined the revolutionaries who worked to overthrow the Czar, was sentenced to death three
times, and escaped with Warsaw's King of Thieves from a Siberian forced labor camp.
Kranzler, Marateck's granddaughter, is a playwright who received the Helen Prince Award for Excellence in Dramatic Writing and was a finalist in the Eugene
O'Neill Theater Center competition for her play Do Hermaphrodites Reproduce Only in the Spring? Her parents, Shimon and Anita Marateck Wincelberg, had
previously translated the twenty-eight notebooks that made up Marateck's diaries and published the first twelve as The Samurai of Vishigrod. After her father
passed away, Kranzler inherited the job of editing and publishing the rest of her grandfather's diaries.
The Accidental Anarchist is told from Jacob's point of view, and his dry wit is evident throughout, leaving the reader with a sense of optimism even amid war,
starvation, and imprisonment. "The seemingly minor decision I made to end my education before the age of thirteen set me on a path from which each subsequent
choice flowed logically from the previous foolish one," Marateck wrote. As a Jewish man in a notoriously anti-Semitic army, he went from fighting with his fellow
soldiers to fighting an impossible war against the Japanese in China. Twice he was sentenced to death: once for punching a superior, and once for falling asleep on
guard duty. Twice he was surprised to find the sentences overturned. After surviving freezing nights, endless marches without food, and gun battles, he returned to
Warsaw to join the revolutionaries, only to be arrested and sentenced to death again. At the last minute he received a reprieve and was shipped instead to a
Siberian labor camp. Through all of these adventures, despite being surrounded by death, Marateck's wit, intelligence, and optimism carried him through.
Readers interested in European or Jewish history, war stories, and just plain action adventure will enjoy this book. Kranzler's editing creates a smooth style with a
quick pace while retaining her grandfather's unique voice and perspective. The Accidental Anarchist is the true story of a likable hero on an epic journey.
In a time between many wars and the falls of empires, "The Accidental Anarchist" tells the story of Jacob Marateck, an unusual rogue Jew who found himself leading Russian armies that hated him, into failed coups against the Czar, and taking long trips home. A story of the chaotic times of Eastern Europe in the early 1900s, "The Accidental Anarchist" is a riveting read about one of the truly unique characters and stories of history that is not often heard about.