In between wars are other wars. Men fight in them all, whatever is available. Between World War I and World War II came the Russian revolution and civil war. Isaac Babel was a glasses-wearing Jewish communist, sent as a reporter to ride with the Red armies as they fought the Whites in 1920; the war had been going on for three years by then. Already a published writer, by Maxim Gorky no less, the articles he dashed off appeared in various communist newspapers and magazines, including Vladimir Mayakovsky’s “LEF.” In 1924 many which were to become Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories were collected and published in Russia. The current volume, wonderfully translated by Peter Constantine, with an informative preface by Babel’s daughter, Nathalie Babel Brown, is copyrighted 2002.
Not a novel, or even connected short-stories, Red Cavalry is a collection of sharp, dashed-off vignettes of war, full of unexpected images, ugliness, “courage and rough-and-ready mirth.” There are sketches of Chiefs of Staff, Commanders of the Army, volunteers in a machine gun squad, old Jews murdered by the Poles, Polish peasants murdering aristocratic overlords. Women appear as prostitutes, as daughters bewailing the death of a father, as nurses, as washerwomen on a troop train. There are deserters and enthusiastic volunteers, men who had been circus acrobats, factory workers, or peasant farmers. Men so exhausted that their horses, tied to their sleeping hands, drag them hundreds of yards before waking.
None is fully developed as a “short-story,” though it is said Babel worked them over obsessively; they are like sketches from a war-artist’s notebook. In fact, at times he seems less a story-teller than a literary Wassily Kandinsky with improbable images telling a familiar landscape.
“The evening soared into the sky like a flock of birds and darkness laid its wet garland upon me. I was exhausted, and, crouching beneath the crown of death, walked on, begging fate for the simplest ability–the ability to kill a man.”
Or like a slightly older Garcia Lorca:
“The thin horn of the moon dipped its arrows into the black waters of the Teterev.”
Though I’m not sure even Lorca never achieved this:
“Do you remember the River Tetrev, Vasily, and that night in which the Sabbath, the young Sabbath, crept along the sunset crushing the stars with the heel of her red slipper?”
But of course, this was a war and he was an embedded reporter. So it is amazing to read his hold-nothing-back reportage, of Red Army losses, officer stupidity, or rape, and cruelty on all sides.
“The Poles, in a swift maneuver had mangled the rear lines of our army … and had taken prisoners many of our fighters in the Eleventh Division.”
The brigade commander threatens “You run for it, I’ll have you shot!” A dying man asks a friend to shoot him; his friend complies, and rides away, hoping someone will do the same for him.
It is a civil war, and fathers fight sons, as a son writes his mother:
“I write you about Papa, that he hacked my brother to death … Papa was with the Whites … he began hacking away at Fyodor, saying “You filth you, red dog, son of a bitch , and other things, and hacked away at him until sundown until my brother died.”
Another son and soldiers from the Buddony Regiment — the same from which Babel reported– found the father in hiding and disguise. “I cannot, dearest Mama … describe to you how they finished off Papa, because I had been sent out of the yard.”
Red Cossacks “requisition” peasant horses so there is nothing to work the field with, and trample the corn under hoof. It rains and it rains. “Dead mice floated down the road.” Men in the ranks call the war “a rotten swindle.”
A peasant takes pleasure in kicking his master to death:
“But I did not shoot him. I kicked him for an hour, maybe even more than an hour, and I really understood what life actually is. With one shot, let me tell you, you can only get rid of a person. A shot would have been a pardon for him and too horribly easy for me, with a shot you cannot get to a man’s soul, to where the soul hides and what it looks like. But there are times when when I don’t spare myself and spend a good hour, maybe even more than an hour, kicking the enemy. I want to understand life, to see what it actually is.”
An old Jew,”engaging me in the silken cords of his smokey eyes, ” tries to make sense of what is swirling about:
“The Pole, that evil dog! He grabs the Jew and rips out his beard, oy, the hound! But now they are beating him, the evil dog! This is marvelous, this is the Revolution! But then the same man who beat the Pole says to me, ‘Gedali, we are requisitioning your gramaphone!’ ‘But gentlemen,’ I tell the Revolution, ‘I love music!’ And what does the Revolution answer me? ‘You don’t know what you love, Gedali! I am going to shoot you, and then you’ll know, and I cannot not shoot you, because I am the Revolution. …
[But the] the Pole did shoot and he was the counterrevolution. And you shoot because you are the Revolution. But Revolution is happiness. And happiness does not like orphans in its house. A good man does good deeds. The Revolution is a good deed done by good men. But good men do not kill. Hence the Revolution is done by bad men. But the Poles are also bad men. Who is going to tell Gedali which is the Revolution and which the counterrevolution? “
This, may I remind you, in a story written from the front and published in communist papers.
Babel writes of the suffering not only of the peasants, the horses, the women, raped, bought and made to work, but of nature itself:
“We desecrated the hives. We fumigated them with sulfur and detonated them with gunpowder. Smoldering rags have spread a foul stench over the holy republic of the bees.”
The stories were published, and celebrated. Babel was feted and lived among the literary and Party elite. He was allowed to travel, and lived for several years with his wife and daughter in Paris. Then Stalin came to power. Soon his books were being censored and recalled. Even so he returned to the Soviet Union in 1935. He was arrested by the NKVD on the night of 15 May 1939. After confessing under interrogation — in Lavrentiy Beria‘s private chambers– to being a Trotskyist terrorist and a foreign spy, he was shot on 27 January 1940, his body thrown into a communal grave. His papers were confiscated, his “correspondence, drafts, manuscripts, everything.” They haven’t been seen since.
Of all war stories I have read, into the hundreds now, Red Cavalry, is far and away the most innovative in its language, and possibly in the brutal honesty of its reporting. He does not tell of glory though he says of himself “I was seized by the exhilaration of disaster.” He reports not just what the eye sees, but what echoes in the chambers of his heart. “They all say they are fighting for justice, and they all loot.”
Why do men fight? He does not tell us as an analyst or historian might. He shows us: Because other men fight them, because they believe, because vengeance, because it is exhilarating, because they can take what they want, because strong men rule.
Maxim Gorky and Ilya Ehrenburg in Russia praised his startling talents. Jose Luis Borges, Harold Bloom and Cynthia Ozick, among others, have registered their amazement:
“Babel lives robustly, inquisitively, hungrily; his appetite for the unpredictable human impulse is gargantuan, inclusive, eccentric. He is a trickster, rapscallion, ironist, wayward lover, imprudent imposter–and out of these hundred fiery selves insidious truths creep out, one by one, in a face, in the color of the sky, in a patch of mud, in a word. Violence, pity, comedy, illumination….” Cynthia Ozick in her Introduction to Complete works