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 threatening letter demanding money. Tartakovsky’s humorous reply goes astray. Angered by a lack of response, Krik robs Tartakovsky’s factory, in the course of which one of the thieves, Savka Butris, kills clerk Joseph Muginstein.
Although Muginstein’s death is ultimately Krik’s fault, Tartakovsky is made to pay Muginstein’s mother five thousand rubles as compensation; Krik also grants her a pension for life. He also arranges an extravagant funeral for both Muginstein and Butris, who is killed either by Krik or by a member of his gang. At the funeral, Krik delivers a brief and somewhat incoherent eulogy, then drives off in his red car. Someone watching the proceedings pronounces Krik the king for his bravado and grand gestures, and the title stuck.
Grach’s daughter Basya returns to her father after spending her first twenty years with her grandmother. She wants to marry Solomonchik Kaplun, the son of a grocer, but Solomonchik’s parents insist that he marry a grocer’s daughter. Grach asks Lyubka Schneiweiss, the innkeeper, her advice about whom his daughter should marry. She recommends that Basya marry the already-married Krik. When Krik at last emerges, the two men arrange the wedding, which includes making the Kapluns pay two thousand rubles toward Basya’s dowry.
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...
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