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Kirill Finkelshteyn
In the wrong body. The secret life of Nicolai de Raylan.
Moscow: IDRIS publisher.  2021; 416 p. 16+


If we remove all the lies from history,

this doesn’t mean that only truth will be left –

there may be nothing left at all.

                                       Stanisław Jerzy Lec



    …One day, the phone rang in the author’s apartment, and a dry, slightly cracking voice uttered, “May I talk to Mr. Finkelshteyn?”

    “Good evening. This is Michael Epstein. A few months ago, you called me regarding my grandfather, Michael Feinberg, and asked whether our family might still have his files and the diary of someone named Raylan. At the time, I replied that I had never heard of anything like that, and that was the absolute truth. Recently, Mark, the son of my deceased brother, came to visit us. I mentioned your phone call and your interest in our ancestor. My nephew replied that at his house, among his father’s belongings, there is a small traveling suitcase containing some papers that remained from his father’s mother, the daughter of Judge Feinberg. He hadn’t looked inside in a long time and promised to see whether it might contain anything besides his grandmother’s letters, documents, and photographs. Yesterday, Mark called and told me that he found a plastic bag inside the suitcase containing old newspaper clippings detailing Judge Feinberg’s activities, a few of his photographs, including some with Vice President Curtis, and also two tarnished notebooks filled with faded writings, definitely not in Latin script, but possibly in one of the Slavic languages. Email Mark at, and he will send you a copy of a few pages from the notebooks. Perhaps this is what you’re looking for.” 

                                 .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       .       

       When a parcel arrived a week later containing two voluminous notebooks bound with hard calico, I felt like Schliemann preparing to examine Priam’s Treasure[ ]. Unfortunately, Mark turned out to be right: one of the notebooks was covered in the “corpse spots” of mold, and the majority of the pages seemed to be hopelessly stuck together. Having studied some book restoration guides, I was able to remove the mold using diluted formaldehyde, while the clumped pages came unstuck after steam treatment. But the ink on them was blurred by water, leaving only the uncertain outlines of letters and words here and there. The notebook had seemingly been soaked in the rain or had had something spilled on it, and the ink turned out to be low-quality. Out of the entire text, I was only able to read the first two pages and the last quarter of the notebook, which had escaped the water. It related Raylan’s journey from Antwerp to New York. Most likely, in-between were Raylan’s memoirs about life in Russia which, alas, we will never have a chance to read.

    Time had spared the other notebook, which turned out to be Raylan’s diary from August 1892 to August 1906, containing primarily Nicolai’s impressions of the journey to America and his participation in the World’s Columbian Exposition. The diary was fragmented – at times, the author’s hand hadn’t touched it for several years, and at others, entries occurred almost daily. Raylan tried to give his notes the appearance of individual literary sketches, relating primarily interesting events that he chanced to participate in; only seldom did he write about his personal struggles. The diary ended with a description of his final confession at the Chicago Orthodox Church before leaving to receive medical treatment.

    The 1907 newspaper publication relating Raylan’s diary entries mentioned two notebooks: one contained episodes of his life from his school years to his first steps on American soil, recorded from memory, the other – copies of his correspondence with his friend Zhenya from St. Petersburg and his poems; there was not a word about a diary chronicling his American life. We can only speculate that the notebook with the poems was lost forever, whereas the 1892-1906 diary ended up in Feinberg’s collection only after the publication of the 1907 newspaper. Perhaps Raylan had given it to one of his trusted friends before departing for his medical treatment, and that friend had subsequently passed on (or sold) the diary to Feinberg.

     Below are Raylan’s diary entries with additional comments confirming the veracity of the described events. The text is slightly abridged and follows the conventions of modern spelling and punctuation while preserving the style and vocabulary of the source. The author of the book has divided the diary into separate parts and given each a title for the reader’s convenience. It strikes him that the entries will interest contemporary readers not only as a story of a life in “the wrong body,” but also as a portrait against the backdrop of a bygone era.


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