Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press)
Odessa was a lawless, cosmopolitan port town on the fringes of the Russian Empire, on the Black Sea coast, home to one of the largest Jewish populations in the world. I say ‘was’, because, although it remained an important trading port during the Soviet period, it was also savagely attacked during the Second World War (it was one of the four Soviet cities to be given the title of Hero City, together with Leningrad, Stalingrad and Sevastopol) and 80% of its Jewish community was exterminated during the first 6 months of the occupation.
Its great variety of ethnicites remain tangled even nowadays: it is part of Ukraine, with a majority Ukrainean population, but the main language spoken is Russian, albeit an idiosyncratic Russian with a lot of local slang. It is this rich Odessan argot that the translator Dralyuk tries to capture, and he makes the completely logical choice to use the language of American pulp fiction and films for that purpose.
Babel published these stories in the early 1920s, and they consolidated the myths about the city and its gang culture. Legendary gang leaders such as Sonya the Golden Hand and Mishka the Jap (from the turn of the 20th century) were admired as well as vilified, perceived as rebels and Robin Hood type of characters (when in actual fact they were probably ruthless monsters). They are still a popular source of stories not just locally, but throughout the Russian (and then Soviet) empire. Babel creates his own gang leader, the charismatic yet cruel Benya Krik, known as The King.
The first part of the book narrates (not in linear fashion, these are all distinct stories) the rise of Krik – how he intimidated the new head of police in Odessa by setting fire to the police station, how he first acquired the nickname The King, how he took revenge on those who messed up his deals. It also introduces many other colourful local characters: old gangster boss Froim the Rook, avaricious landlady and smuggler Lyubka the Cossack, Aryyeh Leib the elder of the almshouse, the hapless broker Tsudechkis who seems to misread every situation. Although it can be tricky keeping track of who’s who, these are stories in the best oral tradition, fun, full of sly humour, exaggerated, larger than life, designed to make the listener laugh or cry out in shock.
If the first part of the book is a celebration of diversity and virility, the second part shows what happens when virility becomes aggressive and when innocent bystanders get caught up in events. This is not about quarrels between gangs anymore and the style is much more serious and lyrical, showing the broad range that Babel was capable of.
The narrator here is Babel’s alter ego, a slightly idealistic young Odessan who recalls his childhood and youth in the city. While many of the incidents he recalls are quirky and funny, full of Jewish humour and family foibles, some of the texts, such as The Story of My Dovecote, are heartbreaking, showing the many inequities and dangers to which the Jews living in the city were subjected. A ten-year-old boy who has been saving up assidously to buy a pair of beautiful dovers gets caught up in a vicious pogrom on his way home.
I lay on the ground, the crushed bird bird’s innards sliding from my temple. They ran down my cheek, winding, dribbling, and blinding me. The dove’s tender gut slipped down my forehead, and I shut my only unplastered eye, so that I wouldn’t have to see the world laid bare before me. This world was smal and terrible. There was a pebble lying in front of me, a jagged pebble, like the face of an old woman with a large jaw; and a piece of string; and a clump of feathers, still breathing.
I’ll finish on a more cheerful note, a brilliant quote from the slippery trickster Benya the King himself, who tries to excuse himself for having killed someone ‘accidentally’.
Aunt Pesya, if you want my life, you can have it, but everyone makes mistakes, even God. That’s what it was, aunt Pesya – a huge mistake. But wasn’t it a mistake on God’s part to put the Jews in Russia, where they suffer as if they’re in hell? I ask you, why not have the Jews live in Switzerland, with nothing but top-quality lakes, mountain air and Frenchmen as far as the eye can see? Everyone makes mistakes, even God.
Let’s pretend we don’t know about Babel’s untimely death and his subsequent erasure from Soviet literature. Luckily, he has been rehabilitated now and we can enjoy this earthy, lively, somewhat madcap collection of stories, bringing a new streak of – well, I wouldn’t exactly call it realism, perhaps ‘heightened realism’, but certainly a lot less gloom and pessimism than some of the great Russian writers.