Book Review: Isaac Babel ~ Odessa Stories (Translator Boris Dratyuk) (1910s and 20s)

Babel writes about Jewish life in Odessa at the beginning of the 20th century. Odessa’s a vibrant multi-cultural seaport with a very large Jewish population. Gangsters fascinate Babel and he creates wonderful pen portraits. He also writes about being an intellectual child growing up there.

The brutal criminality of Odessa is written in a series of coup de theatre stories ‘starring’ some vivid personalities. Babel also writes about the stresses of living as a hated minority. He’s an intellectual trying to make sense of pograms and the Bolshevik Revolution.

Benya Krik, the king of Odessa’s underworld, is an important person in this book. Here he’s receiving and acting on information.

The chief, he got all the cops together, gave then a speech…”

The raid’s tomorrow.”[the King]

King, it’s today.” ….

…… “King,” the unknown young man said and chuckled. “Funny thing the police station is burning.”

……. “They left the station, about forty of them,” he said, his jaws trembling, “heading out on their raid. So they take about fifteen steps, and the fire, its already going…..”

Sincerest greetings, Your Honour,” he [the King] said sympathetically. “What can you say at a moment like this? A real nightmare.”

.Oy, what a nightmare…”1

Although the King isn’t the centrepiece story in this collection it’s placed first. Much deeper into the selection is In the basement where a poor Jewish boy invites back a rich bourgeois boy who is nonetheless his intellectual inferior. Needless to relate his mother pulls out all the stops trying to remove obnoxious members of the family whilst the visit is happening. Obviously it doesn’t work and he was shamed. Vibrant and classic family life. Babel at his best.

1 The King pp20, 26-7

2 In the basement p155 ff

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