Because this brief work is a sophisticated commentary on the nature of art as well as “just a story,” it is all the more interesting for the reader to know that it is the last work Isaac Babel published in his lifetime, before he fell victim to Stalinist justice. Although the exact circumstances of Babel’s arrest in 1939 are not known, it is believed that he was charged with espionage, a patently contrived accusation; he was executed in 1941. The Jewish author, whose collections of stories were often reprinted during his lifetime, was “rehabilitated” after the death of Joseph Stalin—and his stories were reprinted again.
“Di Grasso” ostensibly focuses its attention on the Jewish theatrical world of prewar Odessa (about 1908), where one learns that the narrator as a boy of fourteen has recently “come under the sway” of the “tricky” ticket scalper Nick Schwarz and his “enormous silky handle bars.” Without looking further into the relationship between the boy and the older man who is his “boss,” the narrator instead describes (entertainingly) almost the entire action of a very bad play being newly performed by a traveling troupe of Italian actors. In this play, a “city slicker” named Giovanni temporarily lures the daughter of a rich peasant away from her betrothed—a poor shepherd played by the Sicilian actor Di Grasso. Di Grasso pleads with the girl to pray to the Virgin Mary—a huge, garish, wooden statue of whom is on...
(The entire section is 552 words.)