The online journal JewishFiction.net has just posted its latest issue, which includes a sketch and two stories from my (rapidly!) forthcoming translation of Isaac Babel’s Odessa Stories (Pushkin Press). I’m a native of Odessa raised in noirish Los Angeles, and this project was — in myriad ways — a true homecoming. While living in Scotland, I could sink back into the sun-drenched urban landscape of my childhood, savor the peculiar patois of Odessa’s streets, and, at the same time, revel in the language of some of my favorite American crime authors. Let me explain that last bit: The antihero of Babel’s Odessa cycle is a Jewish gangster named Benya Krik, alias “The King,” and the charm of these stories lies largely in his voice. That voice, I came to realize, is not altogether unfamiliar to lovers of American fiction. I’ll quote from my introduction to the volume:
What really keeps you hanging on Babel’s every word are the words themselves, that rich Odessan argot. As Froim the Rook says of Krik, “Benya, he doesn’t talk much, but what he says, it’s got flavor. He doesn’t talk much, but when he talks, you want he should keep talking.” This, after the gutsy Benya barges in on the one-eyed gang boss and declares, “Look, Froim, let’s stop smearing kasha. Try me.” Once Froim gets a taste of that “kasha,” he can’t help giving Benya a try.
The language of Odessa, with its Yiddish inflections and syntactic inversions, its clipped imperatives and its freight of foreign words, was in the air all around me as I was growing up. Little did I know that a similar melting pot, New York’s Lower East Side, had made a similar “kasha” out of English at around the time Benya’s archetypes were raising hell in Moldavanka. When I discovered the novels of Samuel Ornitz, Michael Gold, Henry Roth and Daniel Fuchs, the plays of Clifford Odets and the stories of Bernard Malamud, I felt right at home. I was also fatefully drawn to the Black Mask school of detective fiction, which brought a tough, vivid urban vernacular — the language of gunsels and private eyes — into the mainstream. My English Benya is, linguistically, a product of my misspent youth with the pulps. But I don’t think I’m doing him a disservice by having him tell a kid, “You got words? Spill.” After all, Isaac Babel and Dashiell Hammett were born only a month and a half apart in 1894.