Friday, 25 November 2016

My family's origins, Isaac Babel

As soon as I read anything that smacks of my family's origins, I wriggle or turn away. In the middle of last night, awake at an even more ludicrous hour than usual, I read one of the Odessa stories by Isaac Babel and suddenly saw what I was reading: between Dashiell Hammett and my grandparents. I have been ill lately. My defences are lowered. I couldn't read Babel or his like while my parents were alive. Three of their parents came from north-east of Odessa, Bessarabia, as Babel calls it, as I did before I called it Russia, or Romania, or Moldova.

The name, elusive as Bessarabia/Romania/Moldova, is everything. If Odessa is a summary of whatever I wriggle from, so be it. I was pleased once to be described by a fellow jew as 'one of the Odessa crowd'.

In its tribal regalia, Odessa defeats me. I have no aptitude for the dense colours of these stories. Quickly I feel overwhelmed by rich tapestries of people strutting their noms de guerre. Social fabric I don't know how to weave, how to believe. I wriggle and turn away. Glimpses are all I can manage. I prefer Joseph Roth's Job: internal, uncomprehending, bottomlessly sad, engaged with a room and its outside, a family—if that—and its fragility.

I am happy to learn that in Odessa there were kefir makers, and that Bessarabia was a lush place with wine that smelled of sun and bedbugs. And I am always pleased to see the Yiddish term of endearment, bubbeleh, on the page. Babel's Odessa, up to almost including the pogrom, is linguistically riotous, seductive and vivid. Boris Dralyuk, the Pushkin Press translator, grew up there.

This language has lain mostly undisturbed all my life, just beneath my awareness; and my will. Inflections, inversions, a tone of complaint and triumph, a patois I could not accept as my father would have wanted. I had to invent my own. That was, and is still, the thing.

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