Nina Berberova, The Tattered Cloak (De Cape et de larmes, 1943, 1993)

When the mood for something Russian strikes, I turn towards Berberova. I know she has been sparsely translated in English, but in France in the 1990s many of her novellas have been republished and have achieved some success. That said, I’m not sure this particular novella was such a good choice. The story of two sisters, Ariadna and Sasha, spans from in the bleak years of the immediate post-revolution in Soviet Moscow until the 1940s in Paris (when the novella has actually been written), but the light doesn’t shine much.

Sasha is the narrator. A younger sister to Ariadna, she hasn’t known anything but the harsh misery her family has been thrown into. In Moscow they live in one room of their former house, sharing a sofa close to the fire. Only an old Countess visits them and tells them tales of the glamorous past. Sasha is the pragmatic one and she prides herself for being good at waiting in line for the scarce food they can get, in this hunger-stricken town. Ariadna is the romantic one, and she falls for bohemian artist Samoilov, and leaves Sasha and their father without turning back. Sasha’s life from then doesn’t get any better, even after they leave for France. She toils as a laundry worker in the Russian emigrant milieu. Even the war with Germany doesn’t change her life so much as Samoilov’s sudden reappearance, 20 years later.

Well, I guess this story should come with a warning, just like a cigarette pack. “Reading This Story Greatly Endangers Your Mood”, “Do Not Use While Depressed”, “Do Not Over-read, Beware of Side-effects”… At least, it’s not long, so the bleak fate of Sasha is not too developed, thank God. Of course, focusing on the other sister would have been even more tragic, if this is even possible, but I have the feeling that Berberova wanted to shun the obvious. Did Ariadna regret leaving Sasha behind? That we will never know.

Cross-posted at The Short Story Reading Challenge

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