Book Review – Of Sunshine and Bedbugs by Isaac Babel

Of Sunshine and Bedbugs: Essential Stories by Isaac Babel is a newly curated collection of stories by Russian author Isaac Babel (1894 – 1940), translated into English by Boris Dralyuk, that draws from previous collections of his stories also translated by Dralyuk. This collection opens with a new and enlightening foreword by Dralyuk, as well as a newly translated standalone story vividly exploring the life of one writer in St Petersburg at the beginning of the 20th Century. Originally written in the 1920s and early 1930s, the stories are works of imagination that find their roots in Babel’s real life experience, illuminating and exploring three key times in his life: a childhood merging innocence and lessons hard-learned, his years experiencing the raucous Jewish underworld in his hometown of Odessa, and his time on the front line during the Polish-Soviet War of 1919 – 1921. 

This collection of stories is pulsing with life and teeming with colourful characters, with an emphasis on the different roles these characters play within their communities. Extensive notes at the end of the collection provide details on characters mentioned, both the real historical figures and Babel’s creations heavily based on real-life figures, which transforms this into an historical document of sorts, capturing some larger-than-life figures of a bygone time. His vivid portrayals of these characters, and the places they inhabit, paint a wonderfully rich picture of the time, particularly those of his youth and the Jewish gangster world of Odessa; all written in a vibrant narrative style, with boisterous dialogue, that infuses everyday moments with a great sense of eventfulness of almost theatrical proportions. The stories from the war naturally adopt a more serious and sombre tone, showing Babel’s ability to capture many different voices and atmospheres.

While there is violence in many of the stories, reflecting the reality of the time, there is a dark humour running through the stories that lifts them beyond these horrors. Rowdy scenes bursting with colloquial language sit easily alongside beautiful descriptions of the scenery and the weather, while Babel demonstrates great skill in vividly evoking domestic details of the time; food, decor, dress and rituals. Many of the stories contain stories within stories, giving the collection a slightly folkloric feel at times. 

I thoroughly enjoyed this collection, which should appeal to readers who enjoy being transported to another time and place completely. 

***

Of Sunshine and Bedbugs was published by Pushkin Press on June 30th.

Thank you to the publisher and NetGalley for my digital ARC. 

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