Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Benya Krik is the boss of the Jewish criminals in Moldavanka, a district in Odessa, Russia. One day, he writes to Sender Eichbaum, a rich Jewish merchant in town, demanding twenty thousand rubles. After Eichbaum ignores the attempt at extortion, Krik and his accomplices raid Eichbaum’s property and begin killing his cows. Eichbaum rushes outside to try to stop the killing, and so does his daughter Zilya, wearing only a low-cut blouse. Eichbaum pays Krik to go away, but two days later the gangster returns, returns the money, and asks to marry Zilya. After some persuasion, Eichbaum consents.
A new police chief has resolved to raid Krik’s house on the day the gangster’s forty-year-old sister, Dvoira, plans to marry. A groom had to be bought with the money Krik extorted from Eichbaum because Dvoira is forty years old and has a goiter. On the day of the wedding, a messenger brings Krik the news of the impending raid. Krik and a few friends leave the wedding for half an hour and then return. The lavish wedding feast is soon interrupted by smoke from the burning police station.
A local rabbi explains how Krik was named king of the Moldavanka gangsters. As a young man, Krik asked to join the gang of Froim Grach, then the leader of Odessa’s Jewish underworld. As a test, Grach had told him to rob the rich merchant Rubin Osipovich Tartakovsky, who was so powerful that he had been nicknamed Jew-and-a-half. The story continues: Krik first writes a...
(The entire section is 468 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
Like Red Calvary, each story in Tales of Odessa can stand on its own, but together the stories create a whole that is more than the sum of its parts. However, in this collection the elements of violence, while still present, are less overwhelming than the wholesale destruction of the war-torn countryside during the Polish campaign of 1920. The cruelties of Odessa are smaller, more subtle, but they still have the power to destroy. At times, as can be seen in “Istoriia moei golubiatni” (“The Story of My Dovecote”), one of Babel’s earlier stories that was not included in Tales of Odessa, they can erupt into an anti-Semitic pogrom different only in the scope and degree to which the perpetrators are sanctioned by the central government.
Jewishness and anti-Semitism are the major themes of Tales of Odessa. Although Babel wrote in Russian for a Russian audience, there is a deep thread of similarity between the Tales of Odessa and the body of Yiddish literature that was produced by Odessa’s Jewish community in the years before the Russian Revolution, particularly the work of Sholom Aleichem, who wrote stories about the Jewish community as both an enclosed society and a vulnerable group surrounded by hostile Gentiles. Babel, however, did not take quite the same indulgent attitude toward his coreligionists. His attitudes and mind-set had been reshaped by his experiences riding with the Cossacks, and as a...
(The entire section is 554 words.)
Bibliography (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
Bloom, Harold, ed. Isaac Babel. Philadelphia: Chelsea House, 2004. A collection of essays that examines Babel’s work. Includes a biographical introduction by Bloom and discussion of Babel’s melding of art and reality in his writings. Part of Bloom’s Major Short Story Writers series.
Carden, Patricia. The Art of Isaac Babel. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1972. Offers close readings of the stories. Less biographically oriented than James E. Fallen’s 1974 study, Isaac Babel.
Ehre, Milton. Isaac Babel. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Surveys Babel’s life and literary output. Includes an annotated bibliography of criticism.
Fallen, James E. Isaac Babel: Russian Master of the Short Story. Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1974. Linking Babel’s writings and life, Fallen places the stories within the context of Jewish and modernist literature.
Freidin, Gregory, ed. The Enigma of Isaac Babel: Biography, History, Context. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 2009. This collection of scholarly essays examines Babel’s life and art, the first work to do so “since the fall of communism and the opening of Soviet archives.” Includes a preface, notes, and an index.
Hallett, Richard. Isaac Babel. New York: Frederick Ungar, 1973. A critical biography tracing Babel’s development as a writer.
Mendelsohn, Danuta. Metaphor in Babel’s Short Stories. Ann Arbor, Mich.: Ardis, 1982. A study of Babel’s use of language.