The four stories of Tales of Odessa first appeared in various journals between 1921 and 1924. Isaac Babel continued to write other pieces using the same characters and settings; the last of these works was not published until 1964. These tales recount adventures among the Jewish underworld of the Moldavanka district of the port city of Odessa in the period just before the 1917 Russian Revolution.
In “Odessa” (1916), Babel contrasts the gloom of St. Petersburg’s authors with the sunlight of Nikolai Gogol’s Ukrainian stories. In the collection Tales of Odessa, Babel, emulating Gogol, presents a world filled with color that reflects the vividness of the city and its inhabitants. Human sweat is the color of blood. Basya wears an orange dress; Benya Krik goes courting in an orange suit. The sun is pink or purple, and the sky turns as red as a red-letter day. Froim Grach has red hair, and Krik drives a red car. Lyubka’s son has legs the color of raspberries. The gangsters look like hummingbirds in their suits. Even the dead Muginstein turns green as grass.
Babel’s Odessa resembles the land of Cockaigne, an imaginary place of luxury. At Dvoira’s wedding, the guests enjoy turkeys, chicken, geese, fish, fish soup, rum, cigars, and oranges. The guests reciprocate by throwing money, rings, and necklaces onto golden trays waiting to receive their tributes. Dvoira sits on a mountain of pillows. Sixty chanters sing at Joseph Muginstein’s funeral, which is attended by hundreds, perhaps thousands, of mourners. Everything and everyone is larger than life. Rubin...
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