An all but forgotten, little-translated Russian writer emerges from the shadows with this sometimes-bleak, sometimes-surreal tale.
Piotr Alekseevich Marakulin is a bookkeeper so meticulous in his work that his colleagues in a turn-of-the-century, pre-revolutionary St. Petersburg brokerage call him “the German.” Alas, one day the books don’t balance, and though Marakulin thinks it’s a practical joke, he’s fired. Being sacked first gives him the bracing realization that “a man is as indifferent as a beam to the fate of another,” then plunges him into the existential doldrums. A leading proponent of modernism, Remizov (1877–1957) often took themes from Russian folklore and religion and worked them into his fiction; here the story of Marakulin is less folkloric, though, and more a mashup of Dickens and Gogol, the poor clerk as a sad sack of an Everyman, the ratty tenement in which he lives a microcosm—and a kind of living museum of every kind of suffering. The “sisters of the cross” of the title are the women of the building, who, since the men are off at work, are the exemplars of the world’s soul-trying harshness; one, for instance, is the widow of a famed general who, by dint of that connection, has a nicer apartment than most and invites the fate of Aliona Ivanovna of Crime and Punishment; she winds up, in one of several unpleasant scenes, “lying on the pavement with her spine shattered and her face pushed into the stones.” Since Marakulin has inherited a kind of dumb innocence from his ethereal mother, who “was moved and tormented by everything,” it’s easy to play him, all the more so when he is smitten by a fallen actress, Verochka. The narrative is sometimes fusty, the echoes of the passion a little evident, but the out-of-the-blue ending is worth the price of admission.
Dark and beguiling; Remizov is a writer worth knowing about, and this slender volume makes a good start.