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Words Without Borders

Odessa

I'm not one of those people who like to touch their favorite author's tea cup and who cannot sleep because they traveled that very day to the cemetry where their favorite author’s aunt was buried. Nor do I think that it is a reasonable pastime to visit the grandchildren of the favorite author’s cleaning lady.
But after visiting Lviv (called Lemberg when it was part of the Austrian-Hungarian Empire, and the city where my grandparents used to live), I thought, if I’m already in Ukraine, why not travel to Odessa, the city where Isaak Babel was born and where his stories about a couple of Jewish gangsters take place? A couple of weeks ago, I did a blog on Isaak Babel. He might not be my favorite author, but he comes very close.
With the night train, it’s about twelve hours from Lviv to Odessa. I shared my compartment with my friend Karol, who translates Polish literature into Dutch, and a red-haired, Rubenesque lady, Maria, who trades in wedding gowns and who travels four times a month from Lviv to Odessa to buy material to make them.
Because Ukraine scored against Saudia Arabia, a match for the World Cup, I was invited to the compartment next to mine to drink vodka and eat fried chicken.
After drinking a few vodkas, my neighbor, a man in his forties started stroking my shoulder. I’m not sure if that was meant as a gesture of seduction or just out of sheer happiness because Ukraine had beaten Saudia Arabia.
The next day in my hotel, I asked the front desk manager where the Isaak Babel Museum was.
This only after I’d tried in vain to explain the meaning of the word “towel” to somebody who claimed to speak English.
When he mentioned the Isaak Babel museum, the front desk manager seemed to think that this was the English translation for "archeological museum."
At last, I was redirected to the literary museum.
On the streets of Odessa, I discovered that Isaak Babel is everything but a household name here.
Maybe because the Ukrainians are not into literature that much, or maybe because they would like to forget the past.
Or, as a German journalist visiting Odessa pointed out to me, “The Ukrainians are happy that the Jews left.”


(Words Without Borders, June 22, 2006)