Reading Babel is no picnic in the park. His words are often hard to understand, let alone relish. In Red Cavalry, as he evokes heartrending scenes of torture, deprivation, and corruption, it is often hard to read without almost begging the author for a point of view, a call to arms. Yet in his sharp, vivid--yet terse, accounts (somewhat naturalistic as characters succumb to the hideous corollaries of civil stife--hunger, unbridled violence, senseless cruelty, inhumanity) his compact, frugal stories are never sentetious or tendetious.
The Odessa Tales, the second part of his ouevre, is nearer and dearer to my heart. Immediately, I fell in love with a rabbi's narration of mythical gangster hero Benya Krik. Benya, a Jewish thug with a code of values, who no doubt has the power to empower the young minds of Jewish boys, commands respect as a charismatic desperado, so alien to the preconceptions of Jews as victims and middle-class pushovers, always dependent on the mercy of the ruling elite. Benya wends his way around authorities--whether monarchist or Bolshevik, not only marching to the beat of a different drum, but subjugating others to the beat. Scenes of Odessa, my hometown, are sumptuous though sparing in descriptions of wealthy and lowly merchants, sailors, criminals, and lackeys.
Having read these and other stories in Russian, I look forward to reading the translation in hopes of better understanding them in my adopted tongue. Babel is not the most facile read, but an important and long ignored voice in the Soviet literary canon. Enjoy.