Isaac Babel - Одесские рассказы (the Odessa stories)

2023-11-24 @Literature

Reading Babel’s stories earlier this year was one of my better decisions. My Russian reading pursuit being far and in-between, Babel’s prose, fairly unique in its metaphor-heavy form of expression, makes for a hidden gem.

In contrast to Конармия/Red Cavalry, these here stories concern the early 20th century pre-revolution Odessa. More or less three distinct categories of stories unveil:

  1. The Odessa Jewish organized crime - the meat of the stock
  2. The autobiographical, and undoubtedly not without fiction
  3. Miscellaneous sketches

Of less uniform impact than Конармия, the stories, particularly the earlier of the cycle (written in the 1920s), engage and possibly even transcend the best of the former collection. The remaining range from as good to a bit dragging - explicable, considering the greater compositional time span, some penned well into the 1930s. I personally prefer the earlier prose.

But who am I kidding. It’s all damn good.

Whatever the underlying theme, the mood varies between comedy, tragi-comedy and tragedy, probably in that decreasing order of representation. The Jewish gangster stories I found by far the more humorous of the lot (and never devoid of satire); and more incredulously, all the more poetic, the author notorious for such counterpoint.

Two of the autobiographical stories, История моей голубятни and Первая любовь concern the 1905 Jewish pogroms in and about Odessa, Babel ten years old at the time. Some of the most tragic motifs are to be found therein, possibly all the more harrowing under the veil of innocence, naivety and certain emotional disconnect Babel leverages in his storytelling.

Most of the collection, however, feels less somber. Beyond the gangster thematic:

Must admit, I appreciate the audacity in relating the Jewry in mixed light: the auto-biographical pathos and the anti-semitism (also heavily featured in Конармия), contrasted with the Jewry presented in widely ranging hue and disposition, and ultimately the Jewish gangsters involved in such deeds as you’d imagine (though never entirely without pathos).

I’ve yet to read another author treating the subject in such particulars.

Questions, comments? Connect.