Gangsters, beggars, prostitutes and other inhabitants of Jewish Odessa.
Casualness of street talk and occasional crassness, were not entirely natural to Babel, who grew up overeducated and overprotected, though only a few steps removed from the world he set out to describe. In Odessa Tales, Babel approached the tongue of the underworld as an outsider, romanticizing it, and carefully crafting it to be poetic and beautiful.
Thus, describing wedding preparations for a gangster wedding, Babel writes: "Rooms had been turned into kitchens. A rich flame, a drunk, plump flame, forced its way through the smoke-blackened doors. . . Sweat, red as blood, pink as a foam of a rabid dog, dripped from these blobs of rampant, sweet-odored human flesh. Three cooks prepared the wedding feast . . . and over them, eighty-year old Reisl reigned, traditional as a Torah scroll, tiny and hunchbacked."
What force drew Babel to write such high poetry about the grimy Odessa courtyards? Critics continue to ponder this question. Perhaps Babel felt nostalgia over this world's vanishing. Or perhaps he is expressing his childhood dreams of being part of this exciting, dangerous world--rather than practicing French and violin.
Jewish vs. Soviet
Aside from nostalgic invocation of the shtetl and its underworld, Babel's writing constantly questioned the viability of Jewish life in the Soviet Union. His vignette "Karl Yankel", sometimes grouped with his Odessa stories, describes a court hearing, in which a young Jewish Communist sues his own mother-in-law for secretly circumcising his newborn son and naming him Yankl after a deceased relative. The baby's father had proudly set out to name him Karl--after Marx, of course.
In one of Babel's most heartbreaking short stories, The Story of My First Dovecote, (1925), he tells a semi-biographic tale of a Jewish child who, after passing an exceptionally hard exam, is accepted into an elite Russian school, which maintained strict quotas of the number of Jews they allowed to study there. His elated family promises him a reward: three turtledoves, which he had dreamed of having. On the day of the long-awaited turtledove purchase, a pogrom breaks out. As the child wanders the streets in confusion, an anti-Semitic acquaintance snatches one of the birds and kills it, squashing it on the boy's face, while a passerby chimes in: "we must scatter their seed. . . their seed which I hate so much!" The Jewish child passes out, awakens, and finds his way home--to discover his grandfather mutilated and murdered.
This tale is told in the voice of a child, with innocence and confusion that are heart-wrenching and terrifying. What's even more terrifying, and uncanny, is the fact that Babel's own destiny did not veer too far from this story's narrative. The goons who murdered the fictional boy's grandfather, and the KGB agents who "convicted" Babel himself, differed from each other, at most, by the colors of their uniforms.
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