Antonina Pirozhkova, Isaac Babel’s Widow, Dies Aged 101

by |
09/23/2010 3:47 PM |

Pirozhkova and Babel.
  • Pirozhkova and Babel.

The Times obituary for Antonina Pirozhkova, the 101-year-old Russian engineer and tireless campaigner for the literary legacy of her persecuted, executed author husband Isaac Babel, is one of the more incredible things you’ll read today (“She recalled riding to the Lubyanka, the K.G.B. headquarters, in a car with two K.G.B. thugs on the night of Babel’s arrest. ‘I could not say a single word,’ she wrote. ‘Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, “So, I guess you don’t get much sleep, do you?” And he even laughed.'”).

This is true whether or not you’ve read Elif Batuman‘s “Babel in California,” from n+1 and her linked essay collection The Possessed, but reading it is recommended, as it’s a funny, sneakily sad piece about books and the often lonely people who dedicate their lives to them. Like Antonina Pirozhkova, who features in this excerpt from Elif’s website:

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 should really read the whole thing.