Home » criticism, Fiction

Passion Rules the World

By (November 1, 2016) One Comment

Odessa Storiespushkinodessastories
By Isaac Babel, Translated by Boris Dralyuk
Pushkin Press: 2016

The gangster Benya the King wanted to shake down a stubborn burgher named Eichbaum, whose wealth extended to a full sixty milk cows. The man wouldn’t pay up. So Benya invaded:

Nine blazing stars lit up over Eichbaum’s stockyard. Benya knocked the locks off the shed and led the cows out, one by one. A guy with a knife stood waiting. He tipped each cow over with one blow and plunged the knife into its bovine heart. The torches blossomed like fiery roses on the blood-soaked ground, then shots rang out. Benya started shooting to drive away the milkmaids, who’d come running to the cowshed.

Into the midst of this chaos ran the beautiful daughter of the house, in her nightshirt. “Two days later,” writes Isaac Babel, “without any warning, Benya returned all the money he had taken from Eichbaum, and … asked for his daughter Celia’s hand in marriage.”

Spinning like a dreidel from vice to valor, Benya the King is the central character in a series of short stories by Isaac Babel. He is a gangster, modeled on real historical gangsters who dominated the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Through the audacity of his violence and the warmth of his vision, Benya is something special, part Robin Hood, part Robin Goodfellow. Even his victims use his nickname with sincere respect. “He had passion,” notes Babel, “and passion rules the world.”

The Odessa stories are less well known than Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, a collection of reports from the front of the Polish-Soviet War that secured his reputation as one of the greatest 20th century Russian writers, and they have their own quite different atmosphere. Pushkin Press has published them together in a short volume, retranslated by Boris Dralyuk, to highlight the unity of the set. The book is broken into parts which show Odessa in its romantic heyday, run by the gangsters, and then in its Soviet decline, as it is ruthlessly standardized, normalized, and drained of color. Babel’s autobiographical notes and essays about Odessa are tacked onto the end, to make the book a complete testament to his vision of the city.

redcavalryThat vision is complex and tragic. Odessa in pre-Soviet days may have been a region of mythic heroes, who share something of the amoral vigor of the bandits and warriors of folklore, but it also hosted a plundered populace. A city run by bandits is a paradise for no one but the strong. Still, compared to the regime that pacified the city, old Odessa may not have been so bad after all. The Soviet government rooted out corruption and crime, but it also cracked down on religion and innocent customs, reorganizing here as everywhere according to the blunt dictates of unnuanced rationality.

In a story called “Froim the Rook,” Babel staged an encounter between the representatives of the old and new Odessa. Benya’s bandits have helped out the Soviet army by attacking part of the White Army (a reactionary force that sprang up in response to the Bolshevik Revolution), and they want something in return — they want the authorities to close their eyes to crime for three days. The Cheka, the Soviet secret police, refuse, but the bandits knock off a few banks anyway. The Cheka retaliates. And Froim the Rook, one of Benya’s near-peers in the bandit aristocracy, marches into the Cheka’s Odessa headquarters to demand fair treatment for his men.

Froim the Rook is huge, redheaded, one-eyed. His entrance causes a stir. “You’ve got to see this character,” says one Odessan investigator, “I mean, he’s epic, one of a kind.” They seat Froim in a room and bring him something to drink, and then they wait outside for him to emerge and speak his piece. But he doesn’t come out.

Froim wouldn’t show. Tired of waiting, the investigator went in to look for him. He searched all over the building and finally glanced into the backyard. Froim the Rook lay sprawled under a tarp by the ivy-covered wall. Two Red Army men stood over his corpse, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.

The callous revolutionaries had been ordered to deal with the problem. The investigator, an old Odessan, is stunned. A living myth has fallen, just like that. Noticing his emotion, the investigator’s superior says, “Answer me as a revolutionary — of what use would that man have been in our future society?” The investigator confesses that he can’t think of anything. It’s true: the bandits of Odessa have no place in a modern nation with democratic and egalitarian aspirations:

It wasn’t easy, but [the investigator] managed to banish his memories. Then, livening up, he began where he’d left off, telling the Chekists who’d been sent down from Moscow about the life of Froim the Rook, about his shrewdness, his elusiveness, his contempt for his fellow man — all these astounding stories that have now receded for ever into the past.

This story suggests that Babel’s sympathies were on the side of the old Odessa, but if so, only his sympathies were on that side and not his thinking. Like the investigator in the story, Babel could not have enunciated any publicly convincing reason why the old way of life should be preserved. He was a firm supporter of the 1930sbabelOctober revolution.

Although Babel was eventually executed under Stalin, after being tortured and forced to confess to crimes and treason he had not committed, his death probably had more to do with an unwise affair with the wife of one Stalin’s secret police than with his political views. He had, however, resisted the cultural mandate that writers should conform to a politically useful socialist realism. Babel’s stories were resolutely romantic, and rather than revising his oeuvre or adopting a new documentary style, he opted to write less and less. He said that he was becoming the master of a new genre, the genre of silence.

The tragic course of Babel’s career exemplifies the cleavage opened by Soviet history between the deepest feelings and the profoundest convictions of its best and wisest supporters. To dream the dream of red plenty while witnessing its dystopic implementation and watching your own art suppressed must have been soul-destroying. I think the conflicted admiration Babel’s gangsters wring from the heart of a reader is an echo of Babel’s own life-defining conflict.

Pushkin Press raises a possible explanation of his sympathy for the bandits by including in Odessa Stories a few ostensibly autobiographical stories from Babel’s youth. “The Story of My Dovecote” is a heartbreaking account of a pogrom from the perspective of a Jewish boy. There are signs that this and Babel’s other stories about his own youth may be partly or wholly fictionalized, but after you’ve read them the intensity of the experience of pogrom in Babel’s memory (or imagination) cannot be denied.

He is coming home from the market, carefully carrying a dove he has been awarded for doing well in school. The pogrom breaks over him. An old beggar, joining the sudden anti-semitic frenzy, smashes the boy’s bird against his head:

I lay on the ground, the crushed 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 small 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. My world was small and terrible.

In light of experiences like this, it becomes significant that gangsters like Benya the King and Froim the Rook are Jewish gangsters. They are strong and bullheaded men who do not suffer indignity, much less violence, but master it and use it for their own ends. “There’s no one else in the world like Benya the King,” says one of Babel’s characters:

He cuts through lies and looks for justice, be it justice in quotes or without them. While everyone else, they’re as calm as clams. They can’t be bothered with justice, won’t go looking for it — and that’s worse.

completebabelLike ethnically homogeneous gangsters the world over, Babel’s old Odessans show exaggerated respect for the traditions of their community. Benya, for example, attends and underwrites lavish funerals for Jews he happens to kill. He fulfills a unique function for his people.

That function is publicity, though not in the way we understand the word today. Before the word acquired its modern definition, understood in contrast to privacy, it meant something like representation. The court of a king, for example, was a public place not just because its doings were broadcast to the populace, like celebrity gossip in People magazine, but because the subjects of the king felt a pride and satisfaction in his pleasure and in the exercise of his power, as if they, through him, were partaking in that pleasure and power. The court was public as a park is public, belonging to the whole community, accruing honor to the general account. For the victim of childhood pogroms, perhaps the memory of old Odessa’s bandits was an important compensation, a bulwark against the sense of undefended impotence.

Babel gives us a glimpse of what it might feel like to experience the emancipating vision of Benya the King, if you were a part of the oppressed people he represents:

Why him, you want to know? … Ah, then forget for a while that you’ve got glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart. Stop raising hell at your desk and stammering in public. Imagine for a moment that you raise hell in the streets and stammer on the page. You’re a tiger, a lion, a cat. You can spend the night with a Russian woman and know that you’ve left her satisfied. You’re twenty-five years old. If the sky and the ground had rings attached, you’d grab those rings and pull the sky down to the ground.

Babel’s Odessa stories have never been presented as colorfully in English as they are here, in Boris Dralyuk’s translation. In his preface, Dralyuk notes that he, like Babel, grew up in Odessa. He claims to know the rhythms of its speech, and this seems borne out by the colloquial energy of his prose and the variety of distinct voices he draws out of Babel’s narrators. He made me realize how astonishing were Babel’s gifts for ventriloquism.

Here, for example, is a passage from one of the Odessa stories as it is translated in the standard English edition of The Complete Works of Isaac Babel:

Becoming an Odessan broker, I sprouted leaves and shoots. Weighed down with leaves and shoots, I felt unhappy. What was the reason? The reason was competition. Otherwise I would not have even wiped my nose on Justice. I never learned a trade. All there is in front of me is air, glittering like the sea beneath the sun, beautiful, empty air. The shoots need to be fed. I have seven of them, and my wife is the eighth shoot. I did not wipe my nose on Justice. No, Justice wiped its nose on me. What was the reason? The reason was competition.

There’s nothing wrong with this translation, but read (and listen) to the same lines, in Dralyuk’s version:

When I became a broker in Odessa, I grew leaves, sprouted shoots. Weighed down with these shoots, I felt miserable. Why? Competition is why. If it weren’t for competition, I wouldn’t even blow my nose on justice. There’s no craft, no skill in my hands. I have nothing but air in front of me. It shines like the sea on a sunny day, this beautiful, empty air. But the shoots want to eat. I’ve got seven of them, and my wife is the eighth. No, I didn’t blow my nose on justice. Justice blew its nose on me. Why? Competition is why.

Here, the lines sizzle with personality. It’s a matter of rhythm and the concision needed to achieve it. Dralyuk goes for a clipped, pacey style. In his preface he notes that Babel was born just a month and a half apart from Dashiell Hammett. By implication, we are to understand that he nudged his translations toward the style of hard-boiled detective fiction: “In general, I’ve tended toward concision, feeling it more important to communicate the tone — the sinewy, snappy punch — of the gangsters’ verbal exchanges than to reproduce them word for word.” While I have no Russian, and therefore cannot comment in light of the original, as a longtime fan of Babel in translation, I was excited by the change Dralyuk’s style wrought in familiar stories. They felt new.

If you too have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart, I recommend you pluck them off and cast it out, that you forget them for a while and read this book.

Robert Minto is an editor of Open Letters Monthly. He blogs and tweets.