Russian literature has (deservedly) a reputation for being utterly depressing and heavy—which is why it’s always a delight to find comic writers like Teffi and Isaac Babel. The humor in these authors’ stories and feuilletons is caustic and sharply observed, but still makes me smile and chuckle. This week I read Isaac Babel’s classic collection, Odessa Stories (translated by Boris Dralyuk), about Jewish life in Odessa in the early twentieth century. The collection is night-and-day from his collection Red Cavalry, as one might expect, but it shares similar themes of violence and chaos without being as gutting as Red Cavalry. Odessa Stories is packed with gangsters, tsarist and communist officials, pigeons, and a lot of slapstick.
Most of the stories in this collection center on Benya Krik—Benya the King—and his extended family. Benya is a gangster. He’s twenty pounds of chutzpah in a ten pound sack and gets away with things that should have gotten him shot on the spot. Over the course of the stories, we see Benya rise and the old order fall as the Bolsheviks take control of the country. We see him face off against police and set up protection rackets on intractable rich men. The stories are almost always told secondhand by someone who claims they were present or heard it from a reliable source. The narrators invariably end up telling the story in a loopy, unfocused manner that mirrors the chaos of Benya and his family members’ lives. So, while the stories are ostensibly about Benya, we end up learning a lot about their friends, enemies, and the Jewish community of Odessa and its suburbs.
Odessa Stories also contains a long pair of semi-autobiographical stories about an unnamed boy who is an awful lot like the young Babel. The stories relate how the boy got caught in a pogrom before finding shelter with a friendly family. This story is a stark reminder of how dangerous life could be for Jewish Russians: most of the time, families got along but things could turn deadly in an instant. The other semi-autobiographical story contains my favorite part of the whole collection. The young narrator has been ingratiating himself with the wealthy son of an important family. They’re good friend, but the boy tells all sorts of lies to disguise his origins. Unfortunately, he gets caught up in his lies when he reciprocates an invitation to tea. The boy sends away his embarrassing uncle and grandfather and is praying that they don’t come back before his guest leaves. So, of course they come back. Hilariously, the narrator recites Marc Antony’s eulogy from Julius Caesar to distract his guest (at increasing volumes) while his uncle crows about an amazing deal he got for a huge piece of furniture and his grandfather tortures a violin outside.
Unlike Teffi’s comic stories, the darkness of Russian life is closer to the surface in Babel’s. A person more cynical than I probably would have laughed more at the characters’ antics. I did laugh, but not too much because I could always see how a lucky escape could have easily turned into an ignoble death.
I received a free copy of this book from NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 15 November 2016.