On the Richness of Isaac Babel’s Odessa ‹ Literary Hub
This summer Pushkin Press has brought an essential selection from my two previous volumes of Isaac Babel’s stories. Of Sunshine and Bedbugs weaves together three strands that, at first blush, make for a motley braid. What do they have in common, these poignant reflections on a childhood marred by anti-Semitism, these gleefully garish evocations of a Jewish underworld that looms as large as Mount Olympus, these searing dispatches from the front lines of a war between Red Cossacks and revanchist Poles?
One answer is a mastery of style, for Babel was among the most agile, most energetic prose stylists of his or any other era. And there’s another thing binding these stories together: every one of them is wedded to reality, if only with a shotgun at its back. They are, unarguably, works of imagination, but an imagination lent weight and color by life.
Though he was raised in a middle-class household, Babel was born in Moldavanka, Odessa’s Jewish ghetto, and he could never shake his fascination with its perilous, flavorful existence, for which he was unsuited both by temperament and upbringing. As a child witness to the pogroms that swept the Jewish Pale of Settlement in the first decade of the twentieth century, how could he not revere the real-life prototypes of his mythic gangsters, who began as humbly as the biblical David, stood up to the Goliath of anti-Semitism and tsarist “law and order,” and ended up as kings? Yet how could he not recoil in disgust when contemplating their brutality?
Much the same questions haunt every page of Babel’s fictionalized accounts of riding alongside the Cossacks, who are tasked with ensuring the victory of the Bolshevik Revolution—a revolution his narrator yearns to believe is just—by any means necessary. But what end could possibly justify those unthinkable means? And is he himself up to the task of defending that end, much less securing it? We feel the full force of these questions because they were real for Babel, not hypothetical.
Bringing these stories together under one cover allows us to view the larger-than-life figures of Benya the King, Froim the Rook and Lyubka the Cossack through the eyes of the child whose dream of doves is dashed by a pogromist’s blow, whose world is “small and terrible,” who shuts his “only unplastered eye” so that he doesn’t have to see what lies bare before him: “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.”
When the narrator of “How It Was Done in Odessa” asks the old Reb on the cemetery wall, “Why did Benya Krik alone climb to the top of the rope ladder, leaving the rest of them dangling below on shaky steps?” we think of the learned boy in “First Love” who imagines himself a lover and fighter, “gripped by the pride of imminent death […] because the measure of that day’s grief was too great for a person of ten.” And when Kirill Lyutov (Babel’s nom de plume from his days with the front-line newspaper The Red Cavalryman) first meets the Sixth Division commander and marvels “at the beauty of his gigantic body,” at his “long legs [that] looked like a pair of girls clad in shiny shoulder-length jackboots,” we think of Benya at the top of that rope ladder.
Babel was among the most agile, most energetic prose stylists of his or any other era.
And throughout we notice that Babel’s narrators, who do their best, as Lyutov promises the Sixth Division commander, to “get along” with the crew, remain perpetually off to the side, by turns marveling and shrinking in horror. They may, like the boy in “The Story of My Dovecot,” recite Pushkin’s “verses in violent sobs” at an entrance exam to an elite secondary school, with its strict quotas for Jewish enrolment, but they soon learn that acceptance into the first form is no guarantee of happiness or safety. They may follow the exploits of daring gangsters, but they know Benya’s shoes are several sizes too big for them. They may kill an animal to prove their mettle and win the confidence of their comrades, as Lyutov does in “My First Goose,” but their hearts, “crimson with murder,” creak and bleed.
In many ways, the predicament in which these narrators find themselves is a Jewish one, but only insofar as the Jewish predicament is that of the outsider—and who among us has not been an outsider? The unspoken complement to Groucho Marx’s infamous refusal to join any club that would have him as a member is the aching desire to belong to the clubs that wouldn’t let him in. That desire, with its tangle of Eros and Thanatos, of passion and shame, of ludicrousness and deadly seriousness, is the living pulse of Babel’s prose—and one feels it in every sentence of the story below.
Lyubka the Cossack
By Isaac Babel
In Moldavanka, on the corner of Dalnitskaya and Balkovskaya Streets, stands the house of Lyubka Shneyveys. In this house you’ll find a wine cellar, an inn, a feed store and a dovecote for a hundred pair of Kryukov and Nikolayev doves. All these things, along with plot forty-six at the Odessa quarries, are owned by Lyubka Shneyveys, nicknamed Lyubka the Cossack—all, that is, except for the dovecote, which belongs to Yevzel the watchman, a retired soldier with a medal. On Sundays Yevzel heads out to Okhotnitsky Square and sells his doves to city clerks and kids from the neighbourhood. Besides Yevzel, Lyubka’s courtyard is also home to Pesya Mindl, the cook and procuress, and to Tsudechkis, the manager, a Jew about as puny and with the same little beard as Ben Zkharya, our Moldavanka rabbi. I’ve got a lot of stories about Tsudechkis. And the first of these stories is how he came to manage the inn for Lyubka, nicknamed the Cossack.
About ten years ago Tsudechkis brokered a deal for one of the local landowners, helping him buy a horse-drawn thresher, and in the evening he took this landowner to Lyubka’s place, so they could celebrate in style. This buyer had whiskers reaching all the way down to his chin, and his boots were patent leather. Pesya Mindl served him gefilte fish for dinner, and after dinner a fine young lady by the name of Nastya. The landlord spent the night, and the next morning Yevzel woke Tsudechkis, who had curled up on the doorstep of Lyubka’s room.
“Listen here,” said Yevzel, “last night you were talking big, saying how you helped that landowner buy a thresher—well, let me tell you, he spent the night, then ran off at dawn like the scum that he is. Now, hand over two roubles for the meal and four for the young lady. You’re a slick one, old man. Plain to see. You know the score.”
But Tsudechkis wouldn’t hand over the money. So Yevzel shoved him into Lyubka’s room and locked the door behind him.
“Listen here,” said the watchman, “you just sit tight, and when Lyubka comes back from the quarry, she’ll wring your neck, God help her. Amen.”
“You convict!” Tsudechkis said to the soldier, glancing around the room. “You know nothing but your doves, convict, but I’ve still got faith in God, and he’ll lead me out of here, same as he led all the Jews out of Egypt, and then led them out of the desert…”
The puny broker had a lot more to say to Yevzel, but the soldier pocketed the key and stomped off in his big boots. Then Tsudechkis turned and saw the procuress Pesya Mindl sitting by the window, reading The Miracles and the Heart of the Baal Shem. She was reading the gilt-edged Hasidic book and rocking an oak cradle with her foot. Lyubka’s son, Davidka, lay in the cradle, crying.
“So that’s how things work in this penal colony,” Tsudechkis said to Pesya Mindl. “You’ve got a child lying there, crying its heart out, a pity to watch him, and you, a fat woman, sit there like a stone in the forest, won’t even give him a bottle…”
“Give it to him yourself,” said Pesya Mindl without looking up from her book. “If he should take it from you, you old trickster. He’s as big as a Russkie and all he wants is his mama’s milk, but his mama, she’s bounding around the quarries, drinking tea with the Jews at The Bear, buying up contraband at the harbour. Believe you me, she gives as much thought to her son as to last year’s snow…”
“Yes,” the puny broker said to himself, “you’re in the pharaoh’s hands, Tsudechkis.” He walked over to the eastern wall, muttered the whole Morning Prayer, adding a coda or two, and then took the crying infant in his arms. Davidka looked up puzzled and waved his little crimson legs, which were bathed in infantile sweat, while the old man began walking up and down the room, swaying like a tsaddik in prayer and singing a song without end.
“A-a-a,” he sang, “other children get big holes, but Davidochka gets rolls, so he sleeps both day and night… A-a-a, other children get tight fists…”
Tsudechkis showed Lyubka’s son a little fist with grey hairs and kept going on about the holes and the rolls until the boy fell asleep and the sun reached the middle of the gleaming sky. It reached the middle and began to tremble like a fly sapped of its strength by the heat. The wild peasants from Nerubaysk and Tatarka staying at Lyubka’s inn clambered under their carts and fell deep into a wild, babbling sleep. A drunken workman trudged into the gateway, dropped his plane and his saw, and collapsed to the ground—collapsed and began to snore for the world to hear, enveloped by July’s golden flies and its azure flashes of lightning. Nearby, in the shade, sat the wrinkled German settlers who’d brought Lyubka wine from the Bessarabian border. They lit their pipes, and the smoke from these sinuous chibouks mingled with the silvery stubble on their unshaven elderly cheeks. The sun hung from the sky like a thirsty dog’s rosy tongue, off in the distance the colossal sea rolled onto Peresyp, and the masts of faraway ships rocked gently on the emerald waters of the Odessa Bay. The day sat in a glorious barque, gliding towards evening, and it was only when evening loomed, at five o’clock, that Lyubka returned from town. She arrived on a little roan nag with a big belly and a shaggy mane. A thick-legged fellow in a cotton shirt opened the gate, Yevzel gripped her nag’s bridle, and then Tsudechkis shouted to Lyubka from the place of his confinement:
“My respects, Madame Shneyveys, and a good afternoon. I see you decided to go off on business for three years and dump a hungry child in my lap…”
“Shut it, mug,” Lyubka shot back at the old man and climbed down from the saddle. “Who’s that yapping in my window?”
“Tsudechkis, that slick old man,” the soldier with the medal informed the mistress, and then launched into the whole story with the landowner, but he didn’t get to the end, because the broker interrupted him, screeching at the top of his lungs.
“A shame, I tell you, a shanda!” he screeched and threw down his skullcap. “Dumping your child in someone’s lap and disappearing for three years… You get over here right this minute and give him your teat…”
“Don’t you worry, I’m coming, you swindler,” Lyubka muttered and headed for the stairs. She burst into the room and popped a breast out of her dusty shirt.
The boy reached out to her, gnawed at her monstrous nipple, but got no milk. A vein swelled on the mother’s forehead, and Tsudechkis told her, shaking his skullcap, “You want to snap everything up, greedy Lyubka; you drag the whole world towards you, like children drag a tablecloth to get at breadcrumbs; you want the finest wheat, the finest grapes; you want to bake white bread in the heat of the sun, while your bundle of joy, your little bubbeleh, wastes away without milk…”
“You want I should give milk?” the woman hollered and squeezed her breast. “The Plutarch pulled into the harbour today and I covered fifteen versts in the heat. While you, you old Jew, give me the old song and dance. Go ahead and pay up the six roubles…”
But Tsudechkis still wouldn’t hand over the money. He undid his sleeve, bared his arm and shoved his bony, grimy elbow in Lyubka’s mouth.
“Choke on it, felon,” he said and spat into a corner.
Lyubka stood there with someone else’s elbow in her mouth, then took it out, left the room, locked the door behind her and went out into the yard. Mr Trottyburn, a veritable pillar of red meat, had been waiting. Mr Trottyburn was the chief engineer on the Plutarch. He had brought two sailors with him. One of the sailors was an Englishman, the other a Malay. All three of them had dragged the contraband from Port Said into the yard. Their crate was heavy. It slipped from their hands, hit the ground and out rolled cigars tangled up in Japanese silk. A gaggle of women flocked to the crate, and two wandering gypsies, wobbling and rattling, came sidling up.
“Shove off, crones!” Lyubka hollered and led the sailors off into the shade of an acacia tree. They sat down at a table, Yevzel poured them wine, and Mr Trottyburn unwrapped his wares. He drew out 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. Dusk rolled across the yard, dusk rolled like an evening wave across a wide river, and the drunken Malay, completely bewildered, touched Lyubka’s chest with a finger. First he touched it with one finger, then with each of his fingers in turn.
His tender yellow eyes hung over the table like paper lanterns over a street in China; he sang something very quietly, then Lyubka pushed him with her fist and he fell to the ground.
“Knows what he wants, the little guy,” Lyubka told Mr Trottyburn. “Gonna lose the last of my milk to this Malay, when that Jew up there, he’s eating me alive for it…”
And she pointed up at Tsudechkis, who was standing by the window and washing his socks. A small lamp was sending up smoke in the room, the tub foamed and hissed, and Tsudechkis, sensing that the people below were talking about him, leant out the window and cried out in despair.
“Help me, people!” he cried, waving his arms.
“Shut it, mug!” Lyubka laughed. “Just shut it.”
She threw a rock at the old man, but missed her first shot. So then the woman grabbed an empty bottle of wine. But Mr Trottyburn, the chief engineer, took the bottle from her hands, aimed and lobbed it squarely through the open window.
“Miss Lyubka,” the chief engineer said, rising from the table and aligning his drunken legs. “Many respectable people come to me for goods, Miss Lyubka, but I don’t give my goods to any of them—not to Mr Kuninson, not to Mr Batya, not to Mr Kupchik. I only do business with you, Miss Lyubka, because I find your conversation most delightful…”
Having firmed up his tottering legs, he grabbed his two sailors—one English, the other Malay—by the shoulders and led them in a dance around the cooling courtyard. The people from the Plutarch—they danced in meditative silence. An orange star had rolled down to the very edge of the horizon and stared at them, wide-eyed. Then they got their money, grabbed one another by the hand, and went out into the street, swaying like a hanging lantern on a ship. From the street they could make out the sea, the black water of the Odessa Bay, the toy-like flags atop the submerged masts and the piercing lights burning in spacious interiors. Lyubka accompanied her dancing guests to the crossing;
she stood alone in the empty street for a while, laughed to herself, and turned back for home. The sleepy fellow in the cotton shirt locked the gate behind the mistress, Yevzel brought her the day’s receipts, and she headed upstairs to bed. There she found the procuress Pesya Mindl already asleep, and Tsudechkis rocking the oak cradle with his bare puny feet.
“You’ve tormented us, shameless Lyubka,” he said, and took the child from the cradle. “Lousy mother—here, watch and learn…”
He placed a small comb on Lyubka’s breast and laid her son in the bed next to her. The child reached for his mother, pricked itself on the comb, and began to cry. Then the old man offered Davidka the bottle, but he turned away.
“What’s this witchery, you old cheat?” Lyubka muttered, dozing off.
“Quiet, you lousy mother you!” Tsudechkis answered. “Watch and learn, damn you…”
The child pricked itself on the comb once more, then hesitantly took hold of the bottle and began to suck.
“There,” said Tsudechkis and laughed. “I weaned your child. You could learn a few things from me, damn you…”
Davidka lay in his cradle, sucking his bottle and drooling in bliss. Lyubka woke up, opened her eyes, then closed them again. She glimpsed her son and the moon breaking in through her window. The moon went leaping through black clouds, like a stray calf.
“All right,” Lyubka said. “Pesya Mindl, you open the door for Tsudechkis. And let him come get a pound of American tobacco tomorrow…”
And the next day Tsudechkis showed up for his pound of loose-leaf tobacco from the state of Virginia. He got a quarter-pound of tea in the bargain. A week later, when I came to buy doves from Yevzel, I saw that Lyubka’s inn had a new manager. He was as tiny as Ben Zkharya, our rabbi. Tsudechkis was the new manager.
He stayed at this post for fifteen years, and during that time I heard a lot of stories about him. And if I can, I’ll tell them in order, because these stories, they’re very interesting.
Of Sunshine and Bedbugs, by Isaac Babel (translated by Boris Dralyuk) is available now from Pushkin Press.