Nine blazing stars lit up over Eichbaum’s stockyard. Benya knocked the locks off the shed and led the cows out, one by one. A guy with a knife stood waiting. He tipped each cow over with one blow and plunged the knife into its bovine heart. The torches blossomed like fiery roses on the blood-soaked ground, then shots rang out. Benya started shooting to drive away the milkmaids, who’d come running to the cowshed.Into the midst of this chaos ran the beautiful daughter of the house, in her nightshirt. “Two days later,” writes Isaac Babel, “without any warning, Benya returned all the money he had taken from Eichbaum, and … asked for his daughter Celia’s hand in marriage.”
Spinning like a dreidel from vice to valor, Benya the King is the central character in a series of short stories by Isaac Babel. He is a gangster, modeled on real historical gangsters who dominated the Ukrainian city of Odessa. Through the audacity of his violence and the warmth of his vision, Benya is something special, part Robin Hood, part Robin Goodfellow. Even his victims use his nickname with sincere respect. “He had passion,” notes Babel, “and passion rules the world.”
The Odessa stories are less well known than Babel’s Red Cavalry stories, a collection of reports from the front of the Polish-Soviet War that secured his reputation as one of the greatest 20th century Russian writers, and they have their own quite different atmosphere. Pushkin Press has published them together in a short volume, retranslated by Boris Dralyuk, to highlight the unity of the set. The book is broken into parts which show Odessa in its romantic heyday, run by the gangsters, and then in its Soviet decline, as it is ruthlessly standardized, normalized, and drained of color. Babel’s autobiographical notes and essays about Odessa are tacked onto the end, to make the book a complete testament to his vision of the city.
That vision is complex and tragic. Odessa in pre-Soviet days may have been a region of mythic heroes, who share something of the amoral vigor of the bandits and warriors of folklore, but it also hosted a plundered populace. A city run by bandits is a paradise for no one but the strong. Still, compared to the regime that pacified the city, old Odessa may not have been so bad after all. The Soviet government rooted out corruption and crime, but it also cracked down on religion and innocent customs, reorganizing here as everywhere according to the blunt dictates of unnuanced rationality.
In a story called “Froim the Rook,” Babel staged an encounter between the representatives of the old and new Odessa. Benya’s bandits have helped out the Soviet army by attacking part of the White Army (a reactionary force that sprang up in response to the Bolshevik Revolution), and they want something in return — they want the authorities to close their eyes to crime for three days. The Cheka, the Soviet secret police, refuse, but the bandits knock off a few banks anyway. The Cheka retaliates. And Froim the Rook, one of Benya’s near-peers in the bandit aristocracy, marches into the Cheka’s Odessa headquarters to demand fair treatment for his men.
Froim the Rook is huge, redheaded, one-eyed. His entrance causes a stir. “You’ve got to see this character,” says one Odessan investigator, “I mean, he’s epic, one of a kind.” They seat Froim in a room and bring him something to drink, and then they wait outside for him to emerge and speak his piece. But he doesn’t come out.
Froim wouldn’t show. Tired of waiting, the investigator went in to look for him. He searched all over the building and finally glanced into the backyard. Froim the Rook lay sprawled under a tarp by the ivy-covered wall. Two Red Army men stood over his corpse, smoking hand-rolled cigarettes.
The callous revolutionaries had been ordered to deal with the problem. The investigator, an old Odessan, is stunned. A living myth has fallen, just like that. Noticing his emotion, the investigator’s superior says, “Answer me as a revolutionary — of what use would that man have been in our future society?” The investigator confesses that he can’t think of anything. It’s true: the bandits of Odessa have no place in a modern nation with democratic and egalitarian aspirations:
It wasn’t easy, but [the investigator] managed to banish his memories. Then, livening up, he began where he’d left off, telling the Chekists who’d been sent down from Moscow about the life of Froim the Rook, about his shrewdness, his elusiveness, his contempt for his fellow man — all these astounding stories that have now receded for ever into the past.This story suggests that Babel’s sympathies were on the side of the old Odessa, but if so, only his sympathies were on that side and not his thinking. Like the investigator in the story, Babel could not have enunciated any publicly convincing reason why the old way of life should be preserved. He was a firm supporter of the October revolution.
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