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Emily Raboteau


A Spike to the Heart

Isaac Babel's virtuosity.

While reading Boris Dralyuk's welcome new translation of Isaac Babel's masterful story cycle, Red Cavalry, I thought of the oft-quoted line from one of Babel's later stories, "Guy de Maupassant," a commentary on the power of literature: "No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place." Because the narrator of that short story is a young man hired by a literary matron in St. Petersburg to help translate the works of Maupassant, it's also a sly commentary about the power of literary translation. The narrator describes his craft to his admiring patron in this way: "I spoke to her of style, of an army of words, an army in which every weapon is deployed." Or rather, this is the translator Peter Constantine's translation of the character's terrific line.

I believed that I had read all the fiction Babel had ever written when I agreed to write this review, or rather, every story Babel had ever published, since most of his manuscripts, diaries, journals, and letters were seized when he was arrested by the Soviet secret police in 1939, accused of treason, imprisoned, and shot eight months later after pleading, tragically, to be allowed to finish his work. I was naïve. Since I'm woefully unable to read Russian, what I had actually read was not Babel, but Constantine's previous translation of Babel's collected stories, as well as H. T. Willett's translation of the illuminating 1920 diary Babel kept when he served as a war correspondent in the Polish-Soviet War.

At the start of Babel's literary career, his mentor Gorky is said to have encouraged him to experience life if he wanted to fulfill his promise as a writer. Following his mentor's advice, along with his own sincere belief in the Bolshevik cause, Babel joined the Red Army in its mission to deliver the salvation of Communism to the unwilling Polish villages across the border—a first-stage effort of ...

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