Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Lyubka the Cossack,” like the other stories in Odessa Tales, is written in a highly ornamental and hyperbolic style. It is lyrical, jocular, comic, occasionally even epic in its tone. Most of the characters, Lyubka especially, are painted in mythic proportions. This, together with the exaggerated locutions of the narrator, facilitates the weaving of an allegory between the lines of the main story. However, Babel’s ornamental prose also exists for its own sake. Much of his imagery seems simply to celebrate the ecstasy of the poet who sees clearly (by transforming reality) what the ordinary person is not even aware of. For example, there are the images of the sun, the heat of the day, and the moon: The sun “climbed to the middle of the sky and hung there quivering like a fly overcome by the heat.” The world is “filled with golden flies and the blue lightning-flashes of July.” “The sun lolled from the sky like the pink tongue of a thirsty dog.” “Day sat in a gaily-painted coracle, day sailed on toward evening,” and there is “a moon that skipped through black clouds like a stray calf.”

Such striking images as these seem to make no special contribution to meaning or symbolism, nor does the following remarkable description of the drunken Malay sailor: “His tender yellow eyes hung suspended above the table like paper lamps in a Chinese alley.” Nor does that of Mr. Trottyburn, who is described as “a man like a pillar of russet meat.”

However, such images contribute to the overall ironic tone of the story, with its continual juxtaposition of opposites and its merry blasphemy in treating religion. Most memorable is the portrait of Lyubka as whore and madonna—a perception of the human sexual condition that first crept into Russian literature through Dmitry and Grushenka in Fyodor Dostoevski’s Bratya Karamazovy (1879-1880; The Brothers Karamazov, 1912).