An­dre van Loon

The Sheer Fun of Power

The London Magazine - - CONTENTS -

Odessa Sto­ries, Isaac Ba­bel, trans­lated by Boris Dra­lyuk, Pushkin Press, Oc­to­ber 2016, pp. 224, £12.00 (pa­per­back)

‘Ba­bel speaks in one voice about the stars and the clap’

- Vik­tor Shklovskii

Like most mem­o­rable film ac­tors, Jack Ni­chol­son can be easy to im­per­son­ate. The grin, the know­ing, seedy, lust­ful look. The quiet, smoke-dam­aged voice. The propen­sity to sud­den vi­o­lence. And yet, given a rich role, and when his heart is in it, Ni­chol­son can be un­nerv­ingly un­pre­dictable, com­bin­ing his well-es­tab­lished stylis­tic flour­ishes with new and con­tra­dic­tory touches. In a long ca­reer, his por­trayal of the mob boss Frank Costello in Martin Scors­ese’s The De­parted (2006) is one of his best. He is far re­moved from Mar­lon Brando’s dig­ni­fied, softly-spo­ken God­fa­ther. In­stead, Ni­chol­sonas-Costello is by turns force­ful, hands drip­ping with blood, and self­ef­fac­ing: a wink­ing, of­ten grimly hu­mor­ous old man. This is a mob king play­ing both ruler and fool, and by do­ing so, (al­most al­ways) stay­ing ahead of his op­po­nents.

The De­parted in gen­eral, and Jack Ni­chol­son’s Costello in par­tic­u­lar, serve as a use­ful way into Isaac Ba­bel’s Odessa Sto­ries. In Pushkin Press’s new edi­tion (re­mark­ably, the first time all of Ba­bel’s sto­ries set in Odessa have been pub­lished as a stand-alone col­lec­tion in English), we are pre­sented with a fre­quently ex­hil­a­rat­ing look at a crim­i­nal un­der­world, filled with larger-than-life mob­sters, chancers, hang­ers-on and non-de­script, law-abid­ing ci­ti­zens. Ba­bel’s early twen­ti­eth-cen­tury Odessa and The De­parted’s early twenty-first cen­tury Bos­ton share a nervy, slip­pery edge. The city is never steady, nor ev­i­dently main­tained by the bour­geoisie, but is in­stead a joy­fully im­bal­anced and some­times op­er­at­i­cally vi­o­lent space, in which the crooks get all the best lines.

Also, Ba­bel, just like Scors­ese, is driven by a fas­ci­na­tion with the man (and it is a male-dom­i­nated world, in which women are head­strong at best, and emo­tion­ally sub­mis­sive at worst, with none prov­ing able to eclipse the male pro­tag­o­nist) who rides along the un­cer­tainty with a smirk­ing at­ti­tude to fate and a will to power that none can match. Benya Krik, the Jewish mob boss also known as ‘the King’, may be sep­a­rated from Ni­chol­son’s Frank Costello by al­most a cen­tury, a con­ti­nent, ocean, lan­guage, cul­ture and his­tor­i­cal aware­ness – the list could go on – but the two are at heart spir­i­tual twins, grubby yet glo­ri­ous.

Ba­bel, an over­shad­owed Rus­sian author is eas­ily loos­ened from his his­torico-cul­tural con­text. His ad­mi­ra­tion for the trans­gress­ing man who does not recog­nise sin and who is self-de­pen­dent and mag­net­i­cally com­pelling to the last, will not re­side in dusty, for­eign lan­guage lit­er­a­ture.

Odessa Sto­ries is ob­sessed with the amoral­ity and sheer fun of power. In ‘Part I – Gang­sters and Other “Old Odessans”’, which makes up two thirds of the book, we meet Benya Krik, see­ing him from slightly dif­fer­ent per­spec­tives and at dif­fer­ent points in his life. At ev­ery stage, the sto­ries’ dif­fer­ent nar­ra­tors, who tend to be young, im­pres­sion­able Jewish men, are over­whelmed by Krik’s ap­peal. In ‘The King’, the narrator tells us how Krik was mar­ried, go­ing to see his prospec­tive fa­ther-in-law:

[He] had an orange suit on, a di­a­mond bracelet gleam­ing be­neath his cuff; he came into the room, greeted Eich­baum, and asked for his daugh­ter Celia’s hand in mar­riage…”Lis­ten, Eich­baum”, said the King, “when you die, I’ll bury you at the First Jewish Ceme­tery, right by the gates. I’ll put up a tomb­stone of mar­ble, Eich­baum. I’ll make you an El­der of the Brod­sky Syn­a­gogue. I’ll aban­don my pro­fes­sion, Eich­baum, and we’ll part­ner up in busi­ness. We’ll have two hun­dred cows, Eich­baum. I’ll kill all the other dairy­men. No thief will walk down the street where you live…and you’ll have the King for a son-in-law, not some snot-nosed kid – the King, Eich­baum.”

At first glance, this pas­sage en­dears us to Krik: gar­ish in his cloth­ing, in­sis­tent in his de­sire for Celia, eas­ily pa­tro­n­ised for his re­peated use of the prospec­tive fa­ther-in-law’s sur­name and his straight­for­ward van­ity. How­ever, this is Krik as told by some­one who was not there at the time of the re­ported in­ci­dent, some­one try­ing to im­press us with his view of ‘the King’, a narrator look­ing at us, nudg­ing us by the shoul­der, as if to say: ‘and do you know what he did next?’ And so he tells us:

And Benya Krik, he got his way, be­cause he had pas­sion, and pas­sion rules the world. The new­ly­weds spent three months in fer­tile Bes­sara­bia, swim­ming in grapes, plen­ti­ful food and the sweat of love.

In other words, this is not Krik the man, but Krik the myth – and all the more real, vis­i­ble and pow­er­ful for it. And the narrator, typ­i­cally Ba­belian, ex­em­pli­fies a child-like thrill at telling the story. This is re­peated later in ‘The King’, in which Krik coolly goes about his busi­ness, al­though he has been told about a new Chief of Po­lice in town, who means to make his mark by tak­ing him on. Nat­u­rally, things do not quite work out as planned for the ini­tially proud po­lice­man, ‘that very broom which sweeps clean’, who is seen at the end of the story bit­ing his mous­tache in an­guish at the turn of events.

We see Krik at the ear­li­est stage of his life as a gang­ster in ‘How it was done in Odessa’, in which he ap­proaches the crime boss Froim the Rook. Again the story is told by an ad­mir­ing, rather in­signif­i­cant char­ac­ter, who was not there when the events he nar­rates hap­pened. In the narrator’s words, Krik tells Froim the Rook: ‘Take me in. I want to moor at your dock. The dock I moor at, it won’t be sorry.’ The story sees an in­no­cent man die as the re­sult of a bun­gled mob hit, and Krik gives a speech at his fu­neral:

What did our dear Joseph man­age to see in life? Bup­kis is what. How did he oc­cupy him­self? Count­ing other peo­ple’s money. What did he die for? He died for the whole work­ing class…There are peo­ple in this world who know how to drink vodka, and there are peo­ple who

don’t know how to drink vodka but still drink it. The first, they take plea­sure in grief and in joy, while the oth­ers, they suf­fer for all those who drink vodka with­out know­ing how to drink it.

And a se­condary char­ac­ter, a mere by­stander, ‘lisp­ing Moiseyka’, wit­nesses the speech and al­most in­vol­un­tar­ily says ‘the King’. And that is how Krik be­came known by his usual name, hav­ing risen from as­pir­ing hood­lum to ruler in a mere twelve pages.

‘Sun­set’ goes back to an ear­lier stage in Krik’s life, when his younger brother’s choice of prospec­tive wife is scorned by ‘Papa Krik’, a cruel old man used to rul­ing his house­hold by fear. To­gether, the brothers plot to kill their fa­ther, but events spi­ral out of con­trol and end with the head of the fam­ily scream­ing and hu­mil­i­ated in the court­yard, Benya Krik ‘gone grey from shame’, and the whole neigh­bour­hood gath­ered at their gates to wit­ness this ‘proper scan­dal’. Ruled by pas­sion and in­stan­ta­neous choice, which sub­verts es­tab­lished rulers and of­ten elim­i­nates the men who be­gan the first das­tardly plot, Krik man­ages to come out on top ev­ery time.

How­ever, the myth­i­cal power of the Odessa crooks is ul­ti­mately de­stroyed by the larger power of the Bol­she­viks. The Cheka comes to the city and quickly es­tab­lishes it­self through a ter­ri­fy­ing will­ing­ness to kill and a de­vo­tion to not­ing peo­ple and events down in dry statis­tics. Al­though Ba­bel’s nar­ra­tors do not say so ex­plic­itly, this amounts to an erad­i­ca­tion of the bril­liant, if of­ten grim Odessa of wil­ful mob­sters and their fright­ened, com­pelled au­di­ence. Whereas Krik, Froim the Rook and their sub­or­di­nates col­lect pro­tec­tion money from shops, make deals and steal from the bour­geoisie, the Cheka is por­trayed as far above such schem­ing. Faced with op­po­si­tion, they sim­ply reach for their re­volvers.

In one of the most un­set­tling sto­ries of the col­lec­tion, ‘Froim the Rook’, this al­most le­gendary crime boss spec­tac­u­larly mis­un­der­stands the Bol­she­viks, think­ing he can make a deal with them. When he vis­its their boss, he is given a glass of Co­gnac, while a lowly, lo­cal Chek­ist ex­cit­edly tells the oth­ers: ‘You’ve got to see this char­ac­ter. I mean, he’s epic, one of a kind.’

The narrator goes on:

And Borovoy told them how the one-eyed Froim, not Benya Krik, was the true boss of Odessa’s forty thou­sand thieves…he was the real brains be­hind ev­ery op­er­a­tion – the raids on the fac­to­ries and Odessa’s trea­sury, the at­tacks on the Vol­un­teer Army and the for­eign in­ter­ven­tion­ists.

As he talks, Borovoy waits for Froim to come, so he can point him out to the oth­ers. Tired of wait­ing, he walks around the build­ing, can­not find him, be­fore step­ping out­side to the back­yard, where he fi­nally sees the old man ‘sprawled un­der a tarp by the ivy-cov­ered wall’, two Red Army men smok­ing hand-rolled cig­a­rettes over his corpse.

Benya Krik is spared a sim­i­lar fate in th­ese sto­ries, but they im­ply his even­tual end none­the­less. The Bol­she­viks mean busi­ness, and have no care for the ro­man­tic aura of schem­ing Odessa. Ba­bel, who him­self died in the Gu­lag, ven­er­ates the think­ing and feel­ing man of power, but comes close to si­lence when deal­ing with the Bol­she­vik’s rul­ing prac­tices. Their power is of­ten deaf and blind, brook­ing no op­po­si­tion, supremely un­in­ter­ested in be­ing talked to. This kind of power re­duces ev­ery­thing to a sim­ple cal­cu­la­tion: you are with us, or against us. The hor­ror lies in this crash­ing dull­ness, and in the fact ‘us’ proved to be mu­ta­ble over the years, lead­ing to ever more death.

Of­ten fine sto­ries in their own right slightly pale by com­par­i­son with the gang­ster tales. Typ­i­cally, they show Ba­bel grow­ing up, al­ready un­will­ing from a young age to con­cede his imag­i­na­tive, story-telling power to any­one. Ba­bel, in Vik­tor Shklovskii’s phrase, speaks in one voice about the stars and the clap: he will not be caught out by any­one, in­tent on his own sto­ries, giv­ing no quar­ter from ei­ther above or be­low.

The sto­ries of­ten con­cern vi­o­lence, sex­ual at­trac­tion and the lure of Odessa. Strik­ingly, Ba­bel can be as aes­thet­i­cally hyp­no­tised by the pogroms which threaten his com­mu­nity and fam­ily’s lives as he is by the Jewish mob­sters

in the gang­ster tales. In ‘The Story of my Dove­cote’, the narrator wit­nesses the bru­tal­ity and sen­sual en­joy­ment ex­hib­ited by one man lash­ing out at a house:

He was smash­ing the frame with a wooden mal­let, putting his whole body into it, breath­ing deeply and beam­ing in all di­rec­tions with the kindly smile of drunk­en­ness, sweat and the har­di­ness of spirit….he kept shout­ing…and singing, his blue eyes burst­ing from within…

The man be­comes al­most a slave to his own pas­sions, and yet he is the most awe­some sight the narrator be­holds, deeply mem­o­rable and at­trac­tive for his ex­er­cise of strength, which he patently en­joys.

In ‘First Love’, we wit­ness the narrator as a ten-year old boy, struck by a fierce long­ing for a mar­ried woman. She is softly-spo­ken and teas­ingly coy to her of­fi­cer hus­band:

She’d get bruises on her legs…and would lift her robe above the knee, say­ing to her hus­band: “Kiss my boo-boo…” And the of­fi­cer, bend­ing his long legs in their dra­goon’s trousers, their spurs, their tight kid kid-leather boots, would get down on the dirty floor and, smil­ing, slid­ing his legs and crawl­ing closer on his knees, kiss the in­jured spot...

See­ing this, the young boy feels tor­tured, the sex­u­al­ity of the scene and of his own awak­en­ing self-ev­i­dent:

…but there’s no sense in de­scrib­ing it, be­cause the loves and jeal­ousies of ten-year-old boys bear ev­ery re­sem­blance to the loves and jeal­ousies of grown men.

None­the­less, one can­not help but feel th­ese sto­ries, of a force­ful lit­tle boy and young man, driven by a love for read­ing, women, strong men and quar­rel­some with his fam­ily, come to life most fully when read in con­junc­tion with the macabre beauty of the gang­ster tales.

This is a won­der­ful, highly readable col­lec­tion of sto­ries. At his best, Ba­bel is in­stantly recog­nis­able and yet un­pre­dictable, telling us about events and char­ac­ters that will not stay put. Over­all, his strong­est char­ac­ters strain to­wards self-mas­tery, and dis­dain any­thing that might eclipse them. We sense Benya Krik’s even­tual demise, feel­ing lit­tle doubt it will be grue­some and sick­en­ing in its blind vi­o­lence, and yet he seems to walk out of th­ese pages, un­scathed. Just as Jack Ni­chol­son’s Frank Costello even­tu­ally loses his crown but makes The De­parted, Krik re­mains the most mem­o­rable char­ac­ter in Odessa Sto­ries: the love­able, if also ter­ri­fy­ing vil­lain.

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