File Size: 1637 KB
Print Length: 320 pages
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (April 17, 2003)
Publication Date: May 20, 2015
And there is much to savor here. For Babel was one of the finest writers of the Soviet era. Unfortunately, like Mandelstam, Bulgakov and far too many others, his vast talent was delivered to an early grave by criminals who fashioned themselves as protectors of the common good.
Babel was a literary chameleon – able to vividly capture the noises and characters he met during the brutal years of the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), where nations scarcely born were fighting over borders soon to be forgotten. The stories here are gory and profane, funny and disturbing, filled up with the blood, anguish and up-close horrors of one of the last wars in Europe fought with sabers and horses. But there is also a taste of magical realism here. Roads die and villages bleed, the world itself appears to moan and suffer from the conflit wrought on its fertile soil.
No one is spared Babel’s goring and, more than anything, < em> Red Cavalry< /em> is an indictment of the banality of armed conflict through the voices of commissars and idealists, revolutionaries and troops alike. It should be required reading in every high school, in every country where people still think wars are worth fighting.
As reviewed in Russian Life magazine., In 1919-20, Isaac Babel served as a journalist and propagandist on the Soviet side in the Soviet-Polish War. The particular war was an important factor of the ‘Russian’ Civil Wars that adopted the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. The Red Army was eventually turned back from Warsaw, but secured all the territory of Far eastern Ukraine that became a part of the pre-Second World War Soviet Union (extended to take more of Poland after 1939). The particular 35 short stories in Red Cavalry were written at the time (many are assigned a day and a place) and are based on Babel’s personal experience and reports he was told as he followed the Red Cavalry around. In this neat Pushkin Press edition, none of the reports exceeds ten pages (around 2300 words); most are much shorter, even down to just one web page. Most, therefore, could be described as sketches, or vignettes.
Thanks to Desconcierto and translator Boris Dralyuk there is some fine writing:
‘”Lenin hits it straight away, like a hen pecking at a grain. ”
‘That’s what Surovkov, platoon commander of the staff squadron, said about Lenin, and then we went to sleep in the hayloft. Right now there were six of all of us, huddling together for heat, our legs tangled, under a roof filled with slots that let in the stars. I had formed dreams ~ dreamt of girls – and only my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled. ’
The killing Babel has on his conscience is of an old woman’s goose.
A single of my interests is in the use of armored trains in war, the ‘Russian’ Civil Wars in particular. Babel doesn’t write much of ‘the agitprop (agitation and propaganda) train of the First Cavalry Army’ to which having been attached, but we do learn that it was ‘equipped with a ‘stubborn[ly] running printing press’. Right now there’s a revelation!
In ‘tachankas’, machine guns mounted on horse-drawn farm carts, Babal is plainly as interested as I am. This individual describes the farm carts used; how to conceal the various elements of the outfit on a typical peasant farm; how quickly they can be recovered and assembled (and afterwards hidden again); and how they were used. They were most effective, it seems, as a group assaulting a village or small town not defended by guns or artillery.
Any time a lone ‘tachanka’ comes after a patrol of Polish riflemen hiding in a cemetery, it turns to retreat as soon as it can:
‘We’re done for, ’ We cried out … ‘Done for, old man! ’
‘Why do womenfolk take the trouble? ’ he said . sadly. ‘Why all the matchmaking, marrying, all the kinfolk dancing at weddings…. ’
There Babel evidently follows in the tradition of Tolstoy and Bulgakov. Many of his descriptions of gratuitous violence (against women, the elderly and Jews, as well as against military opponents), cruelty to captives, simple killing – and sometimes of injuries sustained by his comrades – are stomach turning. He wrote these stories whilst the war was still being ongoing and they were published piecemeal in various journals and papers. Surely the intention was not to fill his readers with revulsion? Most likely not, but that is the result the collected stories in the end produce. *
Babel was Jewish. That is acknowledged in some of the stories, although he seems on the whole to play it down. This individual takes a considerable interest in the Jews of north-western Ukraine, their settlements, synagogues and cemeteries, but finds them different from and fewer likeable from those of his native Odessa. They were robbed, persecuted and murdered by both sides in the war. ‘The hatred is the same, the Cossacks likewise, the cruelty the same, it’s nonsense to think one army is different than another’, Babel published in his private journal in September 1920.
In ‘Zamość’ (unlike most places visited by Babel, Zamość is positioned in the modern Poland), Babel sets up this curiously prophetic dialogue:
‘How many Jews are there in the world? ’
‘Ten million. ’
‘There’ll be 2 hundred, 000 left. ’
That is two per penny. Once the next war emerged (1941-1945), two per penny is the proportion of the approximately five million Jews in Poland, the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine who survived (or successfully hid from) the Nazis.
* Jonathan Smele in The " Russian" Civil Wars, 1916-1926: Ten Years That Shook the World writes: ‘If anything, the horrors of the campaign were tempered in Babel’s published stories., A very good description of the Polish Soviet war in the early years of Soviet Russia. The reports are short, many article length (as they were originally intended for many of them). The author goes into the horror of war and its effects on the folks who live or rather survive in this environment, the soldiers and the " civilians". The particular author explores the ancestry of his characters into the moral abyss of brutal war. Babel also does not shy of showing faults in the communist party--even though he or she was an ardent communism. He runs afoul the thought police and finishes up in prison and eventually executed by the Soviet government. (Though probably taking the wife of the head of the NKVD as a enthusiast failed to help).
I found the read fairly quick read as the writer is a very gifted writer and this is a good translation. The brief (sometimes very short) person stories lend itself to part time reading or reading while you hold out say in a doctor's office. The book is very thoughtful and thought provoking., Babel's writing is like no others. Their stories are just like viewing war through a flipbook., The great translation! Better than most of the translations of Desconcierto out there., Russian-Jewish writer Isaak Babel's collection of stories, Red Cavalry, comes close to perfection in many ways. In conditions of theme, tone, pacing, and momentum, Babel gets everything right.
The collection follows the exploits of a Cossack cavalry unit in its fight against the Poles. Although war features heavily in the reports, it is merely the focus of the action. Babel takes characters from diverse backgrounds, experiences, politics and religious stances and shades, and gives them a voice in his tales.
It is no surprise that Babel did not survive Stalin. A brain and creatively so vast and encompassing could never squeeze into an ideology no matter how broadly defined., I'm liking the Red Cossacks despite the truth that I abhor their cause and am happy they were defeated in their intention to seep into Europe. Babel has sympathy, interest, and a incredible sense of humor.
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