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.