Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel review – criminally good

Lively tales from Russia’s first modernist about the Ukrainian port city once run by Jewish gangsters

Here, for me at least, is one of those “where have you been all my life?” books. Set roughly 100 years ago, these tales tell of the lives of the people of the Ukrainian port – a free port for half the previous century, and with a strongly lingering sense of that freedom. Odessa is run by gangsters, and, interestingly, they are Jewish gangsters, Jews making up the second most populous demographic of the town. (By 1938, they were the most populous demographic.) As a child growing up among these people, Babel heard all the stories about them; and, let’s face it, a story with gangsters in it may be a litany of reprehensible events, but it is not going to be dull.

So we get characters such as Lyubka the Cossack, who ignores her newborn baby in order to run her business empire; Tartakovsky, known as “Yid-and-a-half” or “Nine Shakedowns”, “on account of the fact that no single Jew could contain the guts and the gelt that Tartakovsky contained”; and, greatest of all, Benya Krik, the King, who shakes down Tartakovsky, and regards the police with amused contempt. “Let’s talk about Benya Krik,” says the narrator at the beginning of “How It Was Done in Odessa”. “Let’s talk about his lightning-quick rise and his terrible end.” And we’re hooked.

Babel had already made his mark in 1926 when Red Cavalry, an account of his time with the Cossacks fighting in the Soviet-Polish war in 1920, was published. Here he learned to develop a style, “in a clear and not very lengthy way”, as he put it, and his account of the atrocities committed by his own cavalry is hair-raising, to put it mildly. To put it another way: he became as much at risk from his own side due to his chronicling of its actions as he ever had been from the enemy.

Babel survived, as did his style, and he went to work afterwards on these stories. Fractured, jarring, beautiful, alive to humour, they have led to him being called Russia’s first modernist, but what that means here is that they have the ring of contemporaneity, and probably always will. You could watch Goodfellas or Reservoir Dogs in between reading them and consider them all part of a single, continuous thread.

The book is divided into two sections, the first being about the gangsters (whose capacity for violence and gift for retribution will make you whistle in admiration), the second about Babel’s childhood. “The Story of My Dovecote” is probably the most famous one, in which the 10-year-old Babel saves up for “a pair of cherry-red doves with tattered colourful tails and a pair of crested ones”, but then, at the market, gets caught up in a pogrom. This is described almost elliptically, a scene of utter confusion – as it would seem to a child of 10, and recollected some 20 years later.

Babel was shot by firing squad in the Lubyanka, in 1940. His immense popularity in Russia did not save him; and besides, it had been most unwise of him to conduct a long-standing affair with the wife of the head of the NKVD, Nikolai Yezhov.

Babel’s work was banned and his name removed from literary encyclopedias, but he was rehabilitated by Khrushchev, and Russians could read again of the cargoes unpacked by his merchants, “cigars and delicate silks, cocaine and metal files, loose-leaf tobacco from the state of Virginia and black wine purchased on the isle of Chios. Every object had its price; they washed down each figure with Bessarabian wine, which smelt of sunshine and bedbugs.” This is an excellent translation by Boris Dralyuk; I gather Babel can be a nightmare to translate. By the time you get to the final story, “Esther’s Ring”, and read the words “What on earth could compare to the Odessa flea market?”, you need no convincing that it would indeed have been incomparable.

Odessa Stories by Isaac Babel is published by Pushkin. To order a copy for £9.84 (RRP £12) go to bookshop.theguardian.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

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Nicholas Lezard

The GuardianTramp

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