Babel in California

You will find the full text of "Babel in California" (40+ pages) in n+1 Issue 2, Spring 2005.


First my copy was sent back to me with a note: "Please call ASAP regarding portrayal of Cossacks as primitive monsters." It turned out that my copy was lacking in cultural sensitivity toward Cossacks. I tried to explain that, far from calling Cossacks primitive monsters, I was merely suggesting that others had considered Cossacks to be primitive monsters. The coordinator, however, said that this was my mistake: others didn't consider Cossacks to be primitive monsters; in fact, "Cossacks have a rather romantic image."

I considered quoting to her the entry for Cossack in Flaubert's Dictionary of Received ideas: "Eats tallow candles"; but then the burden of proof would still be on me to show that tallow candles are a primitive form of nourishment. Instead I adopted the line that the likelihood of any Cossacks actually attending the exhibit was very slim. But the editor said this wasn't the point, "and anyway you never know in California."

Next came the return of the "three-dimensional objects."
Archive personnel started calling me at home. "Elif, I'm so glad I found you! How would you feel if we put a fur hat in your Red Cavalry display case?"
I considered this. "What kind of fur hat?"
The administrator sighed. "Well, that's the thing, I'm afraid it's not quite authentic. Margaret's husband bought it at a flea market in Moscow. But it looks, you know, like a Russian fur hat."
I had no idea how to respond to this. Finally I had the brilliant idea of deferring the question: "Thanks so much for asking me," I said, "but I really think it should be up to Professor Freidin."
"Oh," she said. "Professor Freidin is not going to want that hat in the display case."
"No," I acknowledged.
The next day, my telephone rang again. "Elif, great. Tell me what you think. We'll put, sort of lying along the bottom of your display case-a Cossack national costume."
"A Cossack national costume?" I repeated.
"Well-well-OK, the problem is that it's child's size. It's sort of a children's Cossack costume. But that's not entirely a bad thing. I mean, because it's in a child's size, it will definitely fit in the case; which might not happen with an adult-size costume."

Nearly every day they thought of something new to put into one of the cases-a samovar, a Talmud, and a three-foot-high rubber statue of King Kong. Finally they settled on an enormous Cossack saber, also, I suspect, acquired by Margaret's husband at the flea market. The unfortunate thing was that they put the saber in a section with no semantic link to sabers, so that several people came up to me at the exhibit when it opened and asked why the saber hadn't been placed under the illustration of "my First Goose," in which the narrator kills a goose with a saber. "It's not my saber," I would say unconvincingly. "I didn't put it there."


By that time, the conference had started. Scholars came from around the world: Russia, Hungary, Uzbekistan. One professor came from Ben-Gurion with a bibliography called "Babelobibliografiya" and a talk on "Babel, Bialik, and Bereavement." But the star guests were Babel's last remaining relatives. There were his two living children: Nathalie, the daughter from Babel's wife Evgeniya; and Lidiya, the daughter from Antonina Piroahkava, with whom Babel lived for his last years. To great scholarly amazement, Antonina Pirozhkova herself had also agreed to come.

This was great news for my classmate, Josh, who was also working on the exhibit, and who had somehow developed a crush on Pirozhkova, based on the pictures from the 1930s which show her to be, indeed, an extremely attractive woman. Josh's parents were Star Wars fans and his full name is Joshua Sky Walker; to differentiate him from other Joshes, he is often called Skywalker.

"Man, do I hope I get to pick her up from the airport,' Skywalker said of Pirozhkova.
"I hope so too," I said, "but you do realize she must be more than ninety years old."
"I don't care-she is so hot. You don't understand."
Alas, I did understand; one develops strange ideas working in an archive. I had noticed some Cossacks in the Rodchenko book whom I would gladly have picked up from the airport, were it not that, in accordance with my prediction, none of them came to the conference.

The luminaries arrived in San Francisco on the last weekend of February. I was frantically studying for my University Orals, reading Balzac like crazy. Skywalker and his friend Fishkin-a native Russian speaker, with a car-had been appointed to pick up Pirozhkova and Lidiya from the airport, to Skywalker's enormous satisfaction. I was initially supposed to pick up Nathalie Babel, but Nathalie Babel had called the department administrator to warn that she had a very heavy trunk with her. "You must send me a strong male graduate student. Otherwise, do not bother. I will take a bus."

So I was at home reading Louis Lambert when the telephone rang. It was Skywalker calling to say that he had broken his foot the previous night at the Euromed 13 dance party.

"Do you think you can get Pirozhkova and Lidiya from the airport? You can't miss them. It'll be, like, a ninety-year-old woman who is gorgeous and a fifty-year-old woman who looks exactly like Isaac Babel."
"But-but what happened to Fishkin?"
"Fishkin went to Tahoe."
"How do you mean, he went to Tahoe?"
"Well, it's kind of a funny story, but maybe I should tell you later. The thing is that their plane lands in half an hour."

I hung up the phone and rushed outside to dump all the garbage that had accumulated in my car. I realized then that I didn't remember Antonina Pirozhkova's patronymic. I ran back inside and looked her up on Google. The patronymic was Nikolaevna. I was halfway out the door when I realized I had forgotten how to say "He broke his foot" in Russian. I looked that up, too: "slomal nogu". I wrote "BABEL" in big letters on a sheet of paper, stuffed it in my bag, and ran out the door, repeating "Antonina Nikolaevna, slomal nogu."

I drove over the speed limit but got to SFO ten minutes after their plane had landed. For half an hour I rushed around the terminal holding a paper labeled "BABEL" and looking for a gorgeous ninety-year-old woman and a fifty- year-old woman who looked like Isaac Babel. There were many many people at the airport that day, but none who came close to matching this description. In despair. I called Freidin from my cell phone and explained the situation.

He didn't take it well. "They won't be looking for you," he said. "They're expecting a boy."
"That's the thing. What if they didn't see a boy and, you know, they took a bus."

But Freidin said his gut feeling was that they were still there, in the airport. He had been right about the Bolshevik ape, I said I would keep looking. And then, ten minutes later, I found her, in a corner, surrounded by suitcases: a tiny and very old woman with a white headband, who was nonetheless recognizable as the beauty from the archive photographs.

"Antonina Nikolaevna!" I exclaimed, beaming.
She glanced at me and turned slightly away, as if hoping I would vanish.
I tried again. "Excuse me, hello, are you here for the Babel conference?"
She quickly turned toward me. "Babel," she said, sitting up. "Babel, yes."
"Oh, I'm so glad-I'm sorry you were waiting. A boy was going to get you, but he broke his foot."
She gave me a look. "You are glad," she observed, "you are smiling, but Lidiya is suffering and nervous. She went to look for a telephone."
"Oh no!" I said, looking around. There were no telephones in sight. "I'll go, I'll look for her."
"Why should you go, too? Then you'll both be lost. Better you should sit here and wait."
So I sat, trying to look somber out of sympathy for Lidiya. It occurred to me then to call Freidin, to say that all was well.
"Thank goodness," he said. "I knew they would still be there. How is Pirozhkova? Is she very angry?"
I looked at Pirozhkova. She did look a bit angry. "I don't know," I said.
"They told me they would send a Russian boy," she said, loudly enough for him to hear. "A boy who knows Russian."

The ride was somehow not cheerful. Lidiya, who did indeed look exactly like her father's photographs, sat next to me in the front, reading aloud from every billboard that we passed. "Nokia Wireless," she said. "Johnny Walker."

Pirozhkova sat in the back and spoke only once the whole trip: "Ask her," she told Lidiya, "what is that thing on her mirror."
The thing on my mirror was a Happy Meal toy, a tiny stuffed Eeyore wearing a tiger suit. "It's a toy," I said.
"A toy," Lidiya said loudly, half-turning to the back seat.
"Yes, but what toy? It's an animal, but what kind?"
"A donkey," I said. "A donkey in a tiger suit."
"You see, mother?" said Lidiya loudly. "It's a donkey in a tiger suit."
"l don't understand. Is there a story behind this?"

As it happened, there was a story behind it: Tigger had developed an anxiety about not having any heritage, so Eeyore put on a tiger suit and pretended to be a relative. As I was thinking of how to explain this, another patch of orange caught my eye. I glanced at the dashboard: the little hieroglyphic gas tank had lit up.

"Its not my donkey,'' I said, switching off the fan. "It's my friend's donkey."
"What did she say?" Pirozhkova asked Lidiya.
"She said that it's her friend's donkey. So she doesn't know why he's wearing a tiger suit."
"What?" said Pirozhkova.
Lidiya rolled her eyes. "She said that the donkey put on the tiger suit, in order to look stronger in front of the other donkeys."
There was a silence.
"I don't think she said that," said Pjrozhkova.

I put on a Duke Ellington CD, hoping that the CD player didn't use gas. We drove by another billboard: "Ted Lempert for State Senate." "Ted Lempert," Lidiya mused, then turned to me. "Who is this Ted Lempert?" I said that I didn't know, but that I thought he wanted to be a senator. "?Hmm," she said. "Lempert. I knew a Lempert once-an artist. His name was Vladimir. Vladimir Lempert." "Oh," I said, trying to think of something to say. "I'm reading a novel by Balzac now about somebody called Louis Lambert." I tried to say "Lambert" to sound like "Lempert," but I guess the connection was still pretty weak. We drove the rest of the way to the hotel in silence.


You will find the full text of "Babel in California" (40+ pages) in n+1 Issue 2, Spring 2005.