The King Strikes Again

Charles King, whose Odessa: Genius and Death in a City of Dreams (2011) provides a fabulous introduction to my fabled hometown, contributed a generous (to say the least!) review of Odessa Stories to the latest TLS (31 March):

Sparkling, wily and loose-tongued, with characters interrupting each other midsentence or slapping away someone else’s idiotic opinion as if it were a horsefly, Babel’s dialogue calls out for a daring translator — someone who will at last do away with “Devil take you!” as an English rendering of the catch-all Russian curse. Boris Dralyuk delivers brilliantly. It helps that he grew up in Odessa himself and has a feel for native pacing and conversational form — not least how to tell a zinger of a joke without overplaying the set-up, or how to lob an insult so that you’re halfway down the street before the target realizes it has been hit.

The result is a fresh and newly accessible version of Babel, a work that is Russian, Jewish, Odessan and idiomatically English all at the same time. Even the violence — and there is plenty of it, described with a cinematic absurdity that calls for a director like Quentin Tarantino — is by turns funny and heartbreaking. Gangsters accidentally shoot one another, women beat their lay-about husbands and, in “The Story of My Dovecote”, the 1905 pogrom is sealed in a single, ghastly image: the corpse of the storyteller’s great-uncle lying on the ground with a live perch wriggling in the crotch of his trousers, a parting joke from his murderers.

The illustration for the piece is a striking poster for Benya Krik (1926), the Soviet film based on the stories and scripted by Babel himself. It’s a silent film, but, as we know, Benya doesn’t talk much anyway. Actions speak louder than words. A few title cards will do. You can watch the whole thing here. Bitten by the Benya bug, I kept on reveling in the sights and sounds of Old Odessa. Here is Leonid Utyosov (born Leyzer Vaysbeyn, 1895-1982) — Odessa’s bard and, for decades, the most popular performer in the Soviet Union — singing “Gop so smykom,” one of the great criminal ballads (blatnye pesni) of the 1920s:

“Gop so smykom” could mean “Hood with a Fiddle Bow,” “Hood with a Gang,” or “Hood Who Grabs and Runs.” The ambiguity of the slang only adds to the song’s charm, burnishing its myth. (Think “Stagger Lee,” or “Stagolee,” or “Stack-o-Lee.”) And the footage is of Utyosov himself, playing the lead in The Career of Spirka Shpandyr (1926). Russian speakers can explore the variants of “Gop” and of many other criminal ballads at the impeccably curated site a-pesni. My favorites include “S odesskogo kichmana” (“From an Odessan Hoosegow”), which is based, believe it or not, on a translation of Heine’s “Die Grenadiere,” and the immortal “Murka” (“Moll”), with its murky history.

One day I’ll write about Yakov Yadov (1873-1940), the Odessan poet who might have written “Murka” and “Gop.” For now, I’ll leave you with a bonafide Yadov number, “Bubliki” or “Bublichki” (“Bagels”), the sob story of a girl forced to sell bagels on the street corner. Her father’s a drunk, her mother’s a scrubwoman (at death’s door, according to some versions)… It’s the early Soviet “House of the Rising Sun.” Utyosov performs:


6 thoughts on “The King Strikes Again

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