This is a literary event: The complete work of a brilliant, elusive Jewish-Russian writer of short fiction whose literary gifts compete for first place among Soviet prose writers of the twentieth century, and whose tragically abbreviated life was all too typical of artists under Stalin’s reign of horror. His daughter Nathalie (one of his three children) has, at the age of seventy-two, edited the fullest and presumably definitive edition of her father’s work, and engaged the excellent services of a distinguished translator, Peter Constantine, who previously did prize-winning translations of Anton Chekhov’s and Thomas Mann’s short stories.
Who was Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel? The son of an Odessa Jewish merchant, he studied English, French, and German, spoke Yiddish as well as Russian at home, and also went to Hebrew school. He witnessed the pogroms against Jews that spread throughout Russia in 1905, part of an incessant persecution that caused two million Jews to leave their country between 1880 and 1917. The murder and desecration of village Jews frequently appear in his work.
Babel worked as a reporter, migrated to Petersburg in 1916, and wrote tales involving such taboo subjects as Jewish men involved with Christian women, Jews forced by official anti-Semitic policies to renounce their religion, teenage pregnancy, abortion, and prostitution. His work captured the attention and won the patronage of Maxim Gorky, the most influential man of letters in the Soviet Union in the 1920’s and 1930’s. He remained Babel’s mentor and protector until his death in 1936.
In the 1920’s, Babel did his best work and made his high reputation. His stories can be conveniently grouped in two cycles, published asOdesskie rasskazy (1931; Tales of Odessa, 1955), which were written between 1921 and 1930, and Konarmiia (1926; Red Cavalry, 1929) written between 1923 and 1926. The Odessa collection focuses on a new Jewish class emerging from the Revolution’s upheavals: rowdy, lusty, brash, violent, and occasionally criminal. The characters are Breughel-like in their brown and coarse appetites; they are draymen, dairy farmers and, all too often, gangsters. Their central hero is Benya Krik, called “The King,” head of a Jewish gang.
In “How Things Were Done in Odessa” an old man narrates Benya’s achievements to a young intellectual:
Well then, forget for a while that you have glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart. . . . Imagine for a moment that you pick fights in town squares . . . .You are a tiger, you are a lion, you are a cat. You can spend the night with a Russian woman, and the Russian woman will be satisfied by you. . . . If the sky and the earth had rings attached to them, you would grab these rings and pull the sky down to earth.
Thus Benya is drawn as a new sort of Jewish titan, who is contrasted to the traditional Jew with his bookishness, passivity, and weakness. Babel creates a Jewish rogue in Benya: powerful, bold, self-confident, violent, and yet something of a Robin Hood, supportive of the poor and oppressed. In “How Things Were Done in Odessa,” Benya tries to right the injustice done to the clerk Muginstein, who was gravely wounded by one of Benya’s men. He has the guilty man killed in return, tries to save Muginstein’s life by getting him the best hospital care, and after Muginstein’s death intimidates the wealthy merchant Tartakovsky into providing the clerk with a grand funeral and the clerk’s mother with a grand pension. He muses to the mother, “But didn’t God Himself make a mistake when he settled the Jews in Russia so they could be tormented as if they were in hell? Wouldn’t it have been better to have the Jews living in Switzerland, where they would’ve been surrounded by first-class lakes, mountain air, and Frenchmen galore?” Somewhat comically, Babel contrasts gloomy imagery associated with the funeral with the vital colors of Benya’s absurdly tasteless clothes (a chocolate jacket, cream pants, and raspberry-red half boots). Thus Benya, though brutal and lawless, is seen as a likeable, even comic and clearly epic character: a Jewish Jesse James.
In the spring of 1920, Babel began riding with the First Cavalry of the Soviet Red Army as a supply officer and Party propagandist. Under the command of General Budyonny, the Cavalry rode into eastern Poland to spread the doctrines of World Revolution. It met bitter resistance, resulting in bitter defeats by the autumn of 1920. Babel chronicled this ill-fated campaign in a series of thirty-four stories that were published in 1926 under the title of Konarmiia, “red cavalry.” The book went into eight editions in three years, was widely translated, and established Babel as a brilliant writer acclaimed internationally.
The principal narrator of Red Calvary has a Christian name but a...
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