Sav­age Short­hand: The Life and Death of Isaac Babel

  • Review
By – October 24, 2011
Russ­ian writer Isaac Babel (1894 – 1940) was a liv­ing con­tra­dic­tion in terms: a Jew from Odessa’s Jew­ish Quar­ter, yet a Cos­sack. Cos­sacks — wild adven­tur­ers, free­boot­ers, rough rid­ers supreme in many parts of East­ern Europe for cen­turies, even into the 1930s, some­times absorbed for con­ve­nience into the mil­i­tary itself — were long feared by vul­ner­a­ble minori­ties such as the Jews. Babel, no mas­quer­ad­er but rather a prime tar­get for the Cos­sacks to attack if they chose, became for a time anoth­er one of their rough rid­ers. How and why this hap­pened rep­re­sent the core of Charyn’s intrigu­ing biog­ra­phy of a Russ­ian Jew able some­how to attract the atten­tion, then the spon­sor­ship, of lit­er­ary giant Max­im Gorky, and sur­vive for a time under the dis­as­trous reign of the mad, capri­cious Josef Stal­in (“The Boss”), until his luck runs out. 

Babel is framed as the sup­posed per­pe­tra­tor of a plot to kill The Boss,” and Stal­in has him shot. Oth­er aspects of the life” include: Babel’s domes­tic and sex­u­al rela­tions: sev­er­al wives, a num­ber of mis­tress­es, a few chil­dren here and there; Babel’s three trips abroad; and the impor­tant mat­ter of his reputation’s reha­bil­i­ta­tion, after the Com­mu­nists reduced his sta­tus to that of a non­per­son. Babel’s most famous char­ac­ter is The King,” Benya Krik, a gang­ster in orange pants,” who ruled (in his own way) over the Jew­ish slums of Odessa. Charyn con­sid­ers Babel’s best works to be Red Cav­al­ry, Tales of Odessa, and the sto­ries of his childhood. 
Samuel I. Bell­man is pro­fes­sor emer­i­tus at Cal­i­for­nia State Poly­tech­nic Uni­ver­si­ty of Pomona. He has been writ­ing on Jew­ish Amer­i­can writ­ers since 1959.

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