Born in 1894 in Odessa, Ukraine, Isaac Babel had a rather non-typical childhood for a Russian Jew of his era. His family was relatively well-to-do, and he grew up pampered with private tutors who taught him German, French, Talmud, and music.
As a young man, he moved to St. Petersburg, the cultural and political center of Russia, where he became involved in the national literary scene, and like many young progressive writers of the time, in the anti-Czarist revolutionary movement. He published two plays and a number of short story collections, most notably Red Cavalry, which he wrote during his journalism career writing about the Bolshevik army during the Russian Civil War of 1917-1923. After the war, back in Odessa, he wrote Odessa Tales (1931), for which he has been hailed as the greatest Russian Jewish writer that ever lived.
Like many Russian Jews of his time, Isaac Babel experienced the glimmering hope of emancipation, acceptance, and even popularity in secular Russian society, a hope that was eventually extinguished by Stalin’s politics of terror. In 1941, he was murdered by Stalin’s secret police under false premises of spying and treason.
A World within a World
It is not surprising that Babel and his literature fell out of favor with the state. After the 1917 Russian Revolution, the Soviet government cultivated artists’ colonies to generate propaganda “literature” promoting manual labor and the working class, and criticizing capitalism and religion. Babel’s Odessa Tales, a short story collection, prized everything antithetical to such values. In a most loving manner, it told stories of the Jewish underworld inhabiting Odessa: gangsters, smugglers, prostitutes, card sharps, street beggars, and the perpetually unemployed and unemployable.
The central character of Odessa Tales, Benya Krik is an aspiring criminal who is crowned “King” by his fellow Jewish Odessans –for his personal charisma, sense of humor, and magnanimity. Another character, the old storyteller, Arye Leib, is a homeless, pious Jew, who lives in the Jewish cemetery, collecting garbage and stories.
With palpable enjoyment, Babel describes these and other characters’ visits to bordellos, legendary robberies, manic career paths, illegitimate births, and tragic deaths.
Babel chronicles these shady adventures in a charmingly bastardized version of Russian. Soaked in Yiddishisms, full of delightful mispronunciations and many twistings and mutations of the Slavic tongue, his Russian street language is tailor-made to fit a Jewish psyche.
While the dialect was accessible to wider, non-Jewish Russian audiences (as well as Jewish readers, of course), in English translation it has often lost much of its flare. But the writing still retains some morsels, reminiscent of the original. For example, when Benya Krik is working his way up the gangster ranks, he says to an old bandit: “Try me . . . and let’s stop wasting time spreading kasha on the table.” This grungy, earthy image contains a good deal of absurdity; people generally don’t spread cooked grains on furniture surfaces. Addressing his superior, Benya is attempting to pass for a smooth-talking polite Russian cosmopolitan, yet he falls into rhetoric of a Jewish ghetto kitchen. His poetic poignancy is enriched with a layer of comic overtones.
Casualness of street talk and occasional crassness, were not entirely natural to Babel, who grew up overeducated and overprotected, though only a few steps removed from the world he set out to describe. In Odessa Tales, Babel approached the tongue of the underworld as an outsider, romanticizing it, and carefully crafting it to be poetic and beautiful.
Thus, describing wedding preparations for a gangster wedding, Babel writes: “Rooms had been turned into kitchens. A rich flame, a drunk, plump flame, forced its way through the smoke-blackened doors. . . Sweat, red as blood, pink as a foam of a rabid dog, dripped from these blobs of rampant, sweet-odored human flesh. Three cooks prepared the wedding feast . . . and over them, eighty-year old Reisl reigned, traditional as a Torah scroll, tiny and hunchbacked.”
What force drew Babel to write such high poetry about the grimy Odessa courtyards? Critics continue to ponder this question. Perhaps Babel felt nostalgia over this world’s vanishing. Or perhaps he is expressing his childhood dreams of being part of this exciting, dangerous world–rather than practicing French and violin.
Jewish vs. Soviet
Aside from nostalgic invocation of the shtetl and its underworld, Babel’s writing constantly questioned the viability of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. His vignette “Karl Yankel”, sometimes grouped with his Odessa stories, describes a court hearing, in which a young Jewish Communist sues his own mother-in-law for secretly circumcising his newborn son and naming him Yankl after a deceased relative. The baby’s father had proudly set out to name him Karl–after Marx, of course.
In one of Babel’s most heartbreaking short stories, The Story of My First Dovecote, (1925), he tells a semi-biographic tale of a Jewish child who, after passing an exceptionally hard exam, is accepted into an elite Russian school, which maintained strict quotas of the number of Jews they allowed to study there. His elated family promises him a reward: three turtledoves, which he had dreamed of having. On the day of the long-awaited turtledove purchase, a pogrom breaks out. As the child wanders the streets in confusion, an anti-Semitic acquaintance snatches one of the birds and kills it, squashing it on the boy’s face, while a passerby chimes in: “we must scatter their seed. . . their seed which I hate so much!” The Jewish child passes out, awakens, and finds his way home–to discover his grandfather mutilated and murdered.
This tale is told in the voice of a child, with innocence and confusion that are heart-wrenching and terrifying. What’s even more terrifying, and uncanny, is the fact that Babel’s own destiny did not veer too far from this story’s narrative. The goons who murdered the fictional boy’s grandfather, and the KGB agents who “convicted” Babel himself, differed from each other, at most, by the colors of their uniforms.
Legacy and Translation
After Stalin’s death, Babel was posthumously exonerated from the charges that had led to his murder. Censored versions of his work began appearing in print in the late 1950s, though it was not until the Soviet Union’s collapse that the fuller editions of his writing became available.
Babel’s poetic admixture of Yiddishized Russian puzzled numerous translators, and while some of his work appeared in recent decades, a collection of his complete works was not introduced to American audiences until 2007. Ever since, there has been a great resurgence of interest in the author, among Jewish and non-Jewish audiences alike.
A voice from a world long-vanished, Babel remains mysteriously foreign, tragic, and enticing. As one of Babel’s great characters, the beggar-sage Arye Leib, once told his listener: “So, now you know the whole story. But what’s the use? On your nose, you still got a pair of spectacles, and inside of you? It’s a perpetual autumn.”
Translations are based on “The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel,” edited by Nathalie Babel and translated by Peter Constantine. It was published by W.W. Norton in 2002.
Pronounced: shTETTull, Origin: Yiddish, a small town or village with a large Jewish population existing in Eastern or Central Europe in the 19th and early-to-mid 20th century.
Pronunced: TORE-uh, Origin: Hebrew, the Five Books of Moses.