Exploring Babel's towering talent

Click to follow
The Independent Culture
What do you do if your currency is worthless, law and order in your town is run by gangsters, but you just can't bring yourself to emigrate?

As any Odessite will tell you: hustle like mad, keep your head down when the bullets fly, and above all, enjoy. This would certainly have been the advice of novelist Isaac Babel, who grew up in this leafy, crumbling Black Sea port a century ago. David Vaughan's How Things Were Done in Odessa (5.45pm R3) shows that little has changed between Babel's day and ours, and that the culture which nurtured Babel, Sholom "Fiddler on the Roof" Aleichem, and a dozen other literary lights is still its anarchic, extravagant self. Babel studied the violin in what he called "a Wunderkind factory for Jewish dwarfs"; Vaughan reports that the factory, though less Jewish, is still there, pumping out first-rate musicians who have to subsist on the local equivalent of $1 per day.

Vaughan is wary of the drug mafiosi who now rule the roost, but he garners fascinating memories of their predecessors, whom the Communists never managed to liquidate. He also mingles with the black-market money changers, watching as representatives of the banks turn up to check the latest rates.

And he hangs out in the sleazy Moldavanka district which Babel eternalised in his Collected Stories (Penguin £6.99), where people still make deals, music and love, like there's no tomorrow.