Odessa Tales by Isaac Babel
ODESSA TALES includes a number of autobiographical childhood tales derived from Babel’s life in the Jewish ghetto of Odessa, populated by aggressive and sometimes even grotesque characters of the demi-monde. The tales compose an ethnic portrait of the Jewish community in an era still ravaged by pogroms and permeated by Russian anti-Semitism. Babel’s stories indict Russian society before and after the revolutions of 1917 with stunning artistry, graphic language, and an ability to find comic elements in the most bizarre characters and plots.
The Story of My Dovecot and Lyubka the Cossack rank as short story masterworks in the Odessa section of Babel’s COLLECTED STORIES, which includes the Cossack stories from RED CAVALRY. “Dovecot” is a story of an epiphany, a young boy’s loss of innocent illusions when institutionalized anti-Semitism runs amok. Allowed to buy three pigeons as a reward for his school work, the narrator visits the marketplace the day that a pogrom erupts and Russian hooligans steal property and attack Jews while the police ignore them. An angry crippled man, supposedly a friend, smashes one of the pigeons on the boy’s head and curses his “spawn.” The betrayal destroys the boy’s illusions more than the general riot and marks a vicious rite of passage into understanding hatred and evil.
“Lyubka,” a massive woman nicknamed “The Cossack,” runs a bordello in Odessa and deals in contraband goods. The story turns comically on the reversal of sex roles when Lyubka makes the schlemiel the manager of her inn and bawdyhouse because he finds a way to wean her wailing baby when no one else can. He places a sharp comb next to her breast and the baby, after bawling in pain from having his mouth pricked, finally accepts a bottle.