King of Odessa: A Novel
By Robert A. Rosenstone
Northwestern University Press, 256 pages, $24.95.
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The great Soviet writer Isaac Babel is renowned less for his work than for his status as a symbol of the brutality of the Communist regime. Justly famed for his short story collection, “Red Cavalry,” and his gangster bon vivant creation, Benya Krik, Babel was arrested on trumped-up charges in 1939, accused of Trotskyite activity and conspiracy to overthrow Soviet leader Joseph Stalin. He was found guilty after a trial that lasted all of 20 minutes and killed in January 1940.
Rather than retell the familiar story of Babel’s death, in “King of Odessa” Robert A. Rosenstone gives us a Babel in the full swing of life. In a high-modernist maneuver appropriate to Ford Madox Ford and the like, the book purports to be a recovered manuscript, written by Babel during his last sojourn in his hometown of Odessa, four years before his death. In a manner reminiscent of Anthony Burgess’s “Nothing Like the Sun: A Story of Shakespeare’s Love-Life,” or Leonid Tsypkin’s recently reissued “Summer in Baden-Baden,” Rosenstone attempts to twist the life of a novelist into novelistic shape.
Still basking in the success of “Red Cavalry,” Babel has not published a book in 10 years and has made a living from film screenwriting. Intending to work with director Sergei Eisenstein on a new film, “Bezhin Meadow,” Babel returns to Odessa, home to all his stories, particularly the legendary Benya Krik tales. He discovers an Odessa that, to a large extent, has been created by the author himself. As a petty criminal that he encounters tells him, “You’ve given us to the world. You’ve made us what we are.” Babel finds himself in a modernist hall of mirrors where the creator is trapped inside his own imaginary world. The harsh realities of life in the Soviet regime have only made the need for art’s consolations all the greater. Unsure of what the next day will bring, or even whether Stalin and his minions will allow them what small measure of freedom they still possess, the citizens of Odessa look to Babel to bring them dignity. “Now make our lives important,” they command him.
Babel, needless to say, has troubles of his own. Publishers are hounding him about the promised novel on collectivization he has, so far, failed to produce. He is being pursued by shadowy state agents for mysterious purposes. His wife Zhenya and daughter Natasha live in Paris, and he has not seen them for more than three years. Babel has two other women who are longstanding presences in his life: Nina, an engineer working on the Moscow subway, and Kashirina, with whom he has a child while in Moscow, and who is now married. In addition to juggling the women in his life, Babel has a difficult relationship with the members of his family, who have emigrated to Brussels. In exchange for the steady infusion of genuine Odessa bagels he sends them, they supply a stable flow of guilt-inducing correspondence regarding his abandonment of his kin. Hoping some time at a government-supplied villa in Odessa will be a respite, Babel is instead followed by Kremlin representatives who demand his help in a top-secret rescue mission of someone (in a Kafkaesque touch) referred to only as K.
Rosenstone leaves us in the dark about these puzzling goings-on for much of the book, which gives us breathing room to enjoy some of the book’s other pleasures. While he is clearly no Babel in the writing department, Rosenstone possesses his own charms and crafts a pleasing first-person voice for his novel. His Babel is a charming rogue, a slightly less criminal version of the writer’s celebrated Benya Krik. He skims through the world on the strength of his wit, and women crowd his life because he is capable of literally charming the pants off of them. Underwhelmed by the political excitements of his age, Babel is the anti-socialist realist; his “dialectical surrealism,” as Babel brands it, features dancing brides in wedding dresses cavorting down the famed Odessa steps, in lieu of Eisenstein’s revolutionary romanticism. His alternate vision of history has more bounce to the ounce and less “workers of the world unite.”
Babel’s refusal to write, to engage a Soviet regime that contradicted, in body and spirit, all that he stood for, has created a saintly aura around his memory. Rosenstone makes an admirable effort to bring Isaac Babel back to the world of the flawed and real, giving us a Babel hounded by the stress of day-to-day existence. He also provides intriguing insight into the writer’s psyche, the nature of his artistic project and his conflicted relationship with communist ideology.
From the distance of 70-plus years, Babel’s life and writings take on a prophetic quality, his stories of the Russian civil war in “Red Cavalry” bearing the seeds of Communism’s downfall. Babel’s gift of foresight, however, did not extend toward his own existence; in Rosenstone’s account, he is offered the possibility to flee the Soviet Union and join his wife, and he turns it down. By his reckoning, his Russian soul would wither and die in the wilds of Western Europe. In a clever and emotional touch, Rosenstone grants symbolic freedom to Babel, writing a final Benya Krik story in which Benya sees the rise of Communism as bad for business and — in a nod to Babel’s spiritual heir, Mordecai Richler — flees to that paradise on earth that is Montreal, where he flourishes as a bookie and raises four children. Babel’s work is granted the freedom to wander the world, no longer trapped in the constrictions of Soviet society, where, as one character describes it, “we are free from freedom.”
Saul Austerlitz is a freelance writer based in New York.