By Charles King, W.W. Norton & Company, $27.95, 336 pages
Odessa: a city at once beguiling and treacherous, site of massacres, hub of literary and visual arts, an inventory of the famous and infamous, all of these and more are recognized. Charles King chronicles the history of the city, mingling levity without being frivolous, the erudite without so much as a hint of pretentiousness.
King found few early records of the city where Italians, Greeks, and Jews later became superficially Russian. The book, fascinating from the start, is strongest from the century that began in the mid-1800s, when the Zionist Vladimir Jabotinsky and several writers including Pushkin and Babel were imbued by the city’s changing moods. He places an emphasis on the Jewish community, on-and-off again accepted there, until it totaled a third of the population before being devastated in 1941.
Odessa’s most memorable image is the city’s stone steps, leading to the Black Sea, immortalized in Sergei Eisenstein’s “Battleship Potemkin,’ a movie emulated but never surpassed. Few cities come even close to comparison, but for me the closest, by virtue of being a multicultural ocean port, where immigrants crowded the indigenous people, I’d opt for Alexandria and perhaps Bombay.
Supporting a compelling text, the book includes well-organized notes, a copious bibliography and an index and a handful of images.
Reviewed by Jane Manaster