Style and Technique
Babel was a noted practitioner of what is known in Russian as skaz, a dramatic first-person narrative technique that duplicates as closely as possible the natural idiom of the speaker. In “How It Was Done in Odessa,” the primary speaker is Reb Arye-Leib, and his language is rich in the rhythms and idioms of his milieu. However, “How It Was Done in Odessa” is not written in a single uniform style. At the beginning of the story the narrator’s manner is reminiscent of medieval Russian epics. Later, Reb Arye-Leib embeds long speeches by the other characters (which he could not possibly have known from his own experience) into his narrative. Benya’s excessively genteel letter to Tartakovsky and his address to the doctors fall into this category, and their humor derives from his misuse of the language and ignorance of the conventions generally associated with such occasions.
The effectiveness of “How It Was Done in Odessa” depends on a discrepancy between the manner of speaking and what is actually said. Despite the very funny way in which the story is told, it is actually concerned with robbery and murder, and it is the narrator’s ambivalent attitude toward these acts of violence that creates much of the story’s interest. The narrator’s excessively literary style stands in sharp contrast to Benya’s colorful abuse of the language and heightens the reader’s awareness of the differences between the two men. Reb Arye-Leib’s constant hectoring of the narrator and his frequent suggestions that the narrator emulate Benya and become a man of action himself keep this conflict present in the reader’s mind, but such acts of violence are clearly alien to the intellectual narrator. The tension that exists between the light manner of narration and the brutal events depicted reinforces the atmosphere of ambivalence by producing a similar reaction in the reader, who finds the story appealing while at the same time being unable to accept the values of its attractive hero.