Babel in Paris

Babel loved plump women.

Where there’s lots of flesh there’s lots of sweetness. Lots of warmth, heat, tenderness, there’s a caress of sunshine and a velvety splash of the sea. In the damp, spongy folds of skin and in the large soft breasts, whether at rest or swaying gently in motion, there’s the comfort of a gently rocking cradle.

French women—take your pick—were thin and wiry, coquettish and agile like monkeys.Hard to keep your eye on them. They slipped out of sight. They were the incarnation of sin, a sharp, sudden dream that flashes by, leaving you disappointed and dissatisfied. With a serious demeanor they constantly rushed somewhere (to a lovers’ rendezvous?) or with similar deliberation chatted furiously at sidewalk cafés, paying attention to no one else. Or sat silently, either mysteriously staring straight ahead or scanning the street. Each one had male friends, but they, too, seemed detached. They would appear exactly at that moment when Babel had singled out a woman that he might approach and strike up a conversation with.

French women resembled Martians.

They drove Babel crazy. There was no enveloping softness and tenderness in them. They made your head spin—like a whiff of their perfume—that enduring Gallic glory. They aroused you, summoned you somewhere, electricity charged the air around their strong, sinewy, musky bodies (Babel caught the smell), and the only upshot of all this were itches and scratches, the same as from those insatiable insects that feasted on Red Army soldiers during the Russian Civil War.

Ah, Place de la Concorde and Place Pigalle, the poetry of Paris under its yellow lamplight!

But salt—the salt in French women—clung to your lips, just as if you had taken a dip in the sea. Babel didn’t like swimming. He preferred to stand on the beach and watch the waves lap indolently on the shore. During a storm, when they reared up into a great swell, they were like female passion—a passion that he loved more than his own delight. The spectacle excited him more than the pleasure: it pried open something limitless, insuperable, larger than woman alone. The great riddle of being that had bedeviled him since adolescence, that was impossible to express in words, try as he might.

However, besides the pale, nimble, elusive French women, there were also African women. He sensed a hot tenderness in their great legs and the smooth vibration of their whole bodies, moving as if to a drumbeat in the blood. When they walked past, ample breasts swaying, Babel froze, his gaze fixed on the figures: there was so much rhythm and African passion in their dancing, rocking gait. African women smelled of roasted chestnuts and vodka distilled from maize, the hot sweat of a kitchen and coals of a hearth.

The one complemented the other: they had a different rhythm of life, a different pace and a different amplitude.

In African women a black sun kindled its own dark, bewitching fire.

In French women a setting, European sun smoldered low.

Two suns burned over Paris. From hotels of the night came faint wafts of perfume, wine, and the sweat of lovemaking. From the dark windows slightly ajar you could hear heated whispers, little cries and sighs, laughter and moans. It seemed that all of Paris at this late hour was immersed in the sweet labor of love, and those who cooed on lighted terraces or at café tables were awaiting in secret anticipation their own hour.

Babel was going out of his mind. Images of intertwining bodies gave him no peace as he strolled alone through the darkened, mysterious little streets and listened keenly to the call of night and peered into dim, beckoning interiors of bistros where black silhouettes lolled around the bars. Faces paled by the fatigue of night like autumn leaves by a first frost returned his curious, avid glances. The languor of these bored yet inquiring looks excited Babel, but he stifled his excitement, in embarrassment straightened the glasses on his nose, hunched his shoulders and quickly slipped on by—a short, stocky little guy with a big forehead who had accidentally been cast into this inscrutable, entrancing, rich, poor, free-spirited, zesty city, liberated from prejudice and hardened in languid pursuit of its own pleasure with a sure knowledge of the art.

Any random Jacques who sat through the day in his office but had a hundred francs in his pocket was a king here. Babel didn’t have so many francs, in fact quite few, and he needed to live a while longer in this city that caused his head to spin, and he mentally calculated again and again his meager resources, tallying them up by the day. Even when he didn’t do that, he deprived himself of essentials, almost going hungry. He wrote the editors of distant Moscow magazines and tried to squeeze out at least a little money as an advance on some future story. But when the money came (oh, a miracle!), it vanished without notice, and in distraction Babel would think that he had stuck it in some unlikely spot, and in the garret he rented on a top floor he spent time ransacking his pockets. If anything turned up, it was some small coin—a centime that had accidentally slipped through a hole into a jacket lining—and being near-sighted he would study it thoughtfully through the thick lenses of his round glasses.

Unfortunately he was estranged from this holiday. But still it was a paradise, a blessing of fate (especially after the Russian slaughterhouse), life for the sake of life and not in the name of some undefined shining future. Not blood, not the constant fear of an accidental or an intentional bullet, not the wails of victims of rape and murder, not the groans of the injured, not the nauseating sweetish stench of rotting human corpses and horseflesh hanging over the Galician steppes, not the bitter taste of wormwood lingering in the mouth, and not the wind-burned, calloused, cracked skin.

Ah, Paris, the gray islands of palaces that seem to emerge from a fog, the hull of a civilization sinking into oblivion, blazing, limousines in clouds of exhaust, romantic sighs in the shady allées of Bois de Boulogne and the cows munching on spindly grass in outlying workers’ districts—ordinary, fantastic, captivating life, the secret of which pursued him remorselessly. In contrast to Russia—dismembered, hemorrhaging, oozing pus—this place seemed so far from that nonexistence and so peaceful that its very calm, the measured pace itself and the engagement of people in the routine matters of daily life, were so striking to him that he tried to find in it all at least something that reminded him a bit of life’s tragic nature.

To be without money is uncomfortable, but hardly a tragedy.

Tragedy remained in Russia, where there was no pity and everyone moved along the razor’s edge, along the edge of an abyss. Babel loved sharp feelings.

He wanted to go back to Russia. To Russia, which was contorted in labor pains, trying to produce in the world something unprecedented, some unimaginable and extraordinary beauty. Babel needed to constantly feel this spike, this sting ready at any moment to pierce you—the sting of uncommon beauty.

In the worst case, what’s left for a Russian writer to do?

Only to wander dismally, shuffling the worn soles of his shoes along clean washed streets under the trees spread out along the River Seine, stare at the skinny streetwalkers sipping absinthe in sidewalk cafés hospitable to all, and agonize about the inability to understand and describe this plump-figured honey of a girl with slim French legs—Parisian life.

Translation of Babel' v Parizhe. First published in Ta Strana [That Other Country], 2000. Copyright Evgeny Shklovsky. Translation copyright 2010 by Byron Trent Lindsey. All rights reserved.