Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel
Translated by Boris Dralyuk
By now, the Ramblings has probably become known as the haunt of some nutty woman who loves to go on about dead Russian authors (or at least so my OH would have you believe!) I wouldn’t necessarily dispute that (well, the bit about Russian authors, anyway) but looking back through my posts I’m surprised to see that I don’t appear to have written anything about Isaac Babel, apart from one short story and a report of a find of a huge collected book of his work. And bearing in mind what a highly regarded writer he is, I really should have read more of him that I have. So when I heard that the lovely Pushkin Press were bringing out a collection of his entitled “Odessa Stories” I was, of course, very interested.
The new volume brings together all of the stories Babel set in Odessa, the city of the author’s birth, and a wonderful selection they are too. Babel was a Jewish man living in a Ukrainian city and writing in Russian, and that cosmopolitan set up reflects the place itself. Set in the early part of the twentieth century, the stories capture a unique world and way of life which is now long gone. “Odessa Stories” was originally a shorter collection published in 1931, with the stories telling of the life of fictional Jewish mob boss, Benya Krik, and his gang. This expanded volume includes all Babel’s other stories and pieces covering his time in Odessa and the resulting book makes fascinating reading.
“Odessa Stories” is divided into three sections, and the first (entitled ‘Gangsters and Other “Old Odessans”‘) focuses on the ‘gangster’ stories of Benya Krik and his associates and enemies. Basically, the city seems to have been run at the time by the Jewish gangster community, and they have a morality all of their own. We hear of their battles, their loves and their hates, all told in a brilliant and lively voice. The stories read in a remarkably modern, almost colloquial way which works really well with the subject matter. Babel’s been described as a modernist, and certainly these tales are remarkably fresh.
The second section, ‘Childhood and Youth’, contains a group of semi-autobiographical stories (which translator Boris Dralyuk warns us against accepting too literally). The Babel-like narrator revisits his younger days, recalling his coming of age; the outstanding story is “The Story of My Dovecote”, which poignantly recalls the tragic effects of a pogrom that took place around the time of the 1905 Russian uprising. It’s visceral and moving, as the young man mourns the loss of an uncle and his precious doves, almost incapable of really grasping what’s going on around him. It is in these stories that the thread of anti-semitism becomes more clear, as the pogrom is seen through the eyes of a young boy who doesn’t really understand what’s happening; although we as more wise readers can mourn the horror of hatred and intolerance.
Finally, a third part called ‘Loose Leaves and Apocrypha’ rounds up fragments – an essay on Odessa, a short story taking place on the day of Lenin’s funeral and a story which is a recent find and has been attributed to Babel, but probably isn’t by him.
This is a wonderful collection of stories, and Babel certainly seems to have found the perfect translator in the form of Dralyuk, who also provides an excellent introduction and notes. What’s fascinating about the stories is how they shatter the stereotype of the old-style Jewish family showing instead the modern, gutsy, lively folk of Babel’s Odessa. As the author says at one point:
Here it must be said that my people weren’t exactly your typical Jewish family. Our clan had its share of drunks, we seduced generals’ daughters and abandoned them at the border, and our grandfather forged signatures and composed blackmailing letters for deserted wives.
What’s also fascinating is watching the changes that take place in Odessa as the way of life evolves; towards the end of the stories, when the Revolution has happened and the Bolsheviks are taking over, the old guard of gangsters lose control of the city and the iron grip of the Soviets begins to take hold.
Really, I can’t recommend this book highly enough: it’s lively and entertaining, wonderfully written and gives a captivating yet poignant glimpse of a lost world. Plus it’s a beautifully produced Pushkin edition – so what more could you want? Babel’s life was tragically cut short by Stalin’s secret police when he was shot in January 1940; fortunately he left behind him a large body of work and you could find no better place to start reading him than with this lovely volume.