Andre van Loon
The Sheer Fun of Power
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.