#20BooksofSummer: No. 2 – Ludovic Bruckstein (transl. Alastair Ian Blyth)

Ludovic Bruckstein: The Trap, transl. Alastair Ian Blyth, published by Istros Books

I’m ashamed to say that I’ve only just now read this book, although I attended the book launch back in September. I was very impressed by the author’s son and his efforts to get his father’s work published in English, as well as the timeliness of these two novellas and what they have to say to a present-day readership. So I am not quite sure why I tarried for so long – except that I always tend to hoard those books that I am pretty sure I will like… for a rainy day.

Both novellas explore life in a small town in the region of Maramures in the north of Romania. At least, it is in Romania nowadays, but over the past 200 years or so the borders have shifted many, many times. This is a part of the country where Romanians, Germans, Hungarians and Jews used to live together cheek by jowl, although the dominant ethnic group changed over the course of history. One thing you can be sure of, however, is that the Jewish community (and probably the Roma, although they don’t get mentioned in this book) were always among the most oppressed.

It seems an idyllic location. Although the land is mountainous and the soil poor, the people who live there are attached to their land. One of the anecdotes in the book states that the peasants from that area were given the choice to move to the far more fertile plains of Banat to the west of Romania, but they refused. However, as the Second World War descends upon this beautiful landscape, some will no longer be given the choice to remain there.

The Trap is the story of Ernst Blumenthal, a young man who had been studying architecture in Vienna before the Anschluss but has now rejoined his family in Sighet. Life is getting harder and harder for Jews and the order has come for them to stitch yellow stars to their clothes.

To Ernst… the law seemed not only humiliating, not only insulting, but also stupid and ridiculous. It was a small town and everybody knew everybody else… Nobody tried to hide what he was. The law was quite simply idiotic. If a person knows you, what is the point of his making you wear a sign to say you are who you are? And if a person doesn’t know you, what is it to him what race you are?… But if the law demanded a distinguishing mark for Jews, why should it not demand a different mark for all the other races? Each with his own star or cross… it would be only right for Hungarians to wear a green star, their favourite colour… and for Romanians to wear a blue star, and for Zipser Germans to wear a black star… and Ukrainians a pink star… and so on and so forth.

All of a sudden, on a peaceful Saturday, thirty Jewish men are rounded up as they are about to head home for the Sabbath meal and kept for hours by the SS at the Palace of Culture. Personally humiliated by one of the young SS commanders, in fear of being enlisted to serve in labour brigades (Jews were not considered trustworthy enough to serve in the army), Ernst is persuaded by his family to hide in the mountains. He finds shelter with a Romanian peasant family, but soon realises that he poses a real danger to them, so he spends most of his time wandering through the forests and hills with a view of his home town. And he can’t help but notice that things are changing down there.

Just yesterday, the prison was as big as the whole country… Now, the town was a prison, surrounded by invisible walls and guarded by soldiers. And tomorrow? What would tomorrow bring? The streets and then the houses would become prisons. And the walls would close in more and more narrowly, and every person would be a prison unto himself. And a prison guard unto himself…

Bruckstein is so good at capturing the gradual encroachment of dictatorship and racism in an average community, where people are neither better nor worse than anywhere else. It is far too easy to be a bystander – and there is no such thing as neutrality when evil starts to dominate.

That is also the case in the second, longer novella entitled The Rag Doll. Here we have nearly an entire life story, rather than just a brief moment in time. Hanna is the much-loved only child of a Jewish watch-maker, whose skills are hugely appreciated in their small (unnamed) town – probably Sighet once more. She falls in love with a Romanian man, Theodor, whose family are considerably wealthier. Despite their families’ objections to their marriage, they elope and settle in a village far away. Even as war comes knocking at their doors, they continue with their regular tea parties and mild gossip spread about by the village midwife. Because Hanna accompanies her husband to church on Sunday, everyone assumes she is a Christian and not a Jew. Although she had not set out to deliberately deceive them, she is forced into hiding more and more as the discriminatory rules against Jews proliferate. Especially when she sees the reaction of the other villagers when it is revealed that their pharmacist might be a Jew:

The notary felt personally offended, the same as if he had caught Maturinski cheating at cards – the same Maturinski with whom he had sat at table so many times, playing poker or rummy or sixty-six or eight-nine, drinking tea laced with rum and neat rum without tea. Worse still, he felt insulted, as if he had caught him stealing from his pocket… Even though Mr Maturinski had never been asked who he was and consequently had never denied it. Nobody had ever seen him set foot in either the church or the synagogue. And he had never been asked who he was because everybody knew that Mr Edvard Maturinski was the village pharmacist, the proprietor of the Hypocrates, an excellent apothecary, always ready to lend a hand… a polite, courteous man, the village ‘gallant’. And hitherto that had been quite sufficient for everybody…

Not everybody is indignant or complicit. The doctor refuses to give up one of his Jewish patients. The village priest faces a real crisis of faith when he is told to tone down his rhetoric to be more compliant with the SS troops whom he regards as the Antichrist. Sadly, although Hanna is spared the worst of the war, she discovers that the end of the war doesn’t mean the end of anti-semitic rhetoric.

The stories of ordinary people caught up in hate-mongering and treating others as subhumans during war-time may seem familiar, but clearly, given our inability to learn from history, these stories need to be told again and again. I may be biased because of the setting – there was so much loving description of the natural surroundings there – but I felt these stories were fresh and added a new historical perspective.  The translation did feel a bit old-fashioned in parts but perhaps that reflects the period and the author’s style.

 

Russians in July: Odessa Stories

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.

With its Mediterranean architecture, mixed ethnic composition and gang culture, Odessa might remind you of Marseille or Naples.

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.