My thanks to Pushkin Press and NetGalley for a review copy of this book.
Isaac Babel (1894–1940) was not an author I knew or had come across earlier but when this volume of Essential Stories appeared from Pushkin Press, I decided to (somewhat blindly) give it a try. Babel was an author, journalist, and translator among other things, described by Gorky as ‘the greatest Russia has to offer’ (source). In 1939, he was arrested on false charges of espionage and executed in January 1940.
Of Sunshine and Bedbugs: Essential Stories features 26 stories classified in three sections. The stories have been taken from two previous volumes translated by Boris Dralyuk, and included a freshly translated opening piece ‘Guy de Maupassant’ and a preface by Dralyuk which I felt contextualised the stories and helped me understand and appreciate them better.
The first section, ‘Childhood and Youth’ features autobiographical tales of Babel’s childhood, though I read later (via Wikipedia) that while he presents his family in these accounts as ‘destitute and muddleheaded’, they were quite well-off. While the first two stories are far more serious in tone dealing with the Pogrom in 1905, the death and loss, and helplessness felt by people (including his father who looks for help when his shop is being looted, only for the Cossacks to simply ride past), all witnessed through the eyes of a child, the later stories take on a much lighter tone, with eccentric family members embarrassing him before his wealthy friend, and Isaac’s adventures from cutting music class to spend time at the Odessa port to falling in with theatre-ticket black-marketeers. Of these, the first story, ‘The Story of My Dovecote’ is a powerful, heart-rending piece dealing with discrimination and corruption, childhood dreams shattered, and innocence lost. Isaac as a young boy has always dreamed of a dovecote of his own, and his father promises he will get one once he is admitted to school. Isaac is clever, able to secure a place in school in the toughest of circumstances when the Jewish quota at school is ‘only five per cent’ (two students), only to have it taken away when another wealthy parent pays a bribe. He tries again the following year, this time his name making it to the list to the joy and pride of all his family:
It was thus that David, King of Jews had defeated Goliath in ancient times, and just as I had triumphed over Goliath, so too would our people, by the power of our minds, vanquish our enemies, who now surround us thirsting for our blood.
New things are bought, his mother receiving as much childish pleasure from them as himself, and school begins. And now it is time for his father to make good on the promise but unfortunately the day little Isaac goes to the market to buy his precious doves, riots break out, and what was to be a joyous day quickly turns into a horrifying experience scarring him.
The second segment, ‘Gangsters and Other Old Odessans’ takes us into more disreputable quarters with gangsters, innkeepers, dealers in contraband, and other curious and similarly seedy characters. Among these is the gangster Benya Krik (based on real-life Mishka Yaponckik), who outsmarts the police, keeps everyone on their toes, has a sense of justice, but can also commit cruelties and kill at the drop of a hat. Benya seems almost larger than life, and the picture we get of him is certainly romanticized though Babel doesn’t gloss over his activities or cruelty. Dralyuk’s preface helps one see how to a child who witnessed pogroms and discrimination, these characters who stood up to the system and could outwit it would seem fascinating, but at the same time, ones whose cruelty he can’t overlook either. We see Benya in more than one of the stories witnessing his sister’s wedding while also outsmarting the police (‘The King’), his rise to power (‘How It Was Done in Odessa’), and how, as one character describes it, ‘he cuts through lies and looks for justice …’ where others ‘can’t be bothered with justice’ (‘Justice in Quotes’).
The final segment ‘Red Cavalry’ contains stories from Babel’s best-known collection ‘Red Cavalry’. These are stories or rather snippets from the Polish–Soviet war based on Babel’s diary when a journalist assigned to the first cavalry. These stories bring the reader face to face with the brutalities and cruelties that took place with vivid gruesome imagery—bodies, blood, slaughter. Nature, the moon, with its beauty stands in contrast to these cruel scenes, and amidst this we come upon some curious characters as well. But striking through these stories are, and while they turn one back to that basic debate once again—why do we keep doing the same thing (war) over and over—of the three sections, these just made me want to close my eyes or put the book away.
I think this volume was a good way for someone like me, who had never read Babel, to get a good idea of the kind of range his work has (even though this isn’t all), as well as from the initial section to also get an idea of Babel himself, his childhood, the different experiences that informed his writing and in the context of which we should see his work. Reading his descriptions of nature in the Red Cavalry section, one thinks back to advice given to him as a child when he showed some of his writings to Yefim Nikitich Smolich, a journalist (who helped teach him to swim as well):
And you dare to write? A person who doesn’t live in nature—as a stone or an animal lives in nature—will never manage to wrote two worthwhile lines in all his life…
One can also see immediately that Babel is an inveterate storyteller bringing ‘life’ into his stories whether it was ones he regaled classmates with or as in the opening story ‘Guy de Maupassant’ breathed life into a dry translation by a wealthy lady who loved Maupassant but didn’t succeed in getting across the feel of the stories.
Also, before I actually started reading the book, I had no idea that Babel was from Odessa, so we do get glimpses of that port city as well, its emerald waters, businessmen dreaming of turning it into ‘Marseilles or Naples’, its bustling port with exotic products coming in, dealings in contraband, and also its seedier quarters.
These are stories which I think can be best appreciated if read slowly and spread out (rather than reading all together like I did since this was a review copy), and if and when I am in the mind to be able face the more brutal aspects again, I would like to give the last section another try.
There is violence against animals in at least three of the stories which those who are bothered by this like I am should bear in mind but in two of these, one can get past or shut one’s eyes to this fairly successfully. Also a few too many women with large bosoms in the opening story—Guy de Maupassant—(and a few in a couple of other stories) for my liking.
(Copy reviewed: Kindle ARC; Pushkin Press, 2022; 224 pp.; release date: 28 June 2022)
Since this does give us glimpses of Odessa, its Jewish community and the discrimination and atrocities they faced, and the Polish-Soviet conflict, it fits in to Brona’s Understanding Ukraine reads.