Article

Emily Raboteau


A Spike to the Heart

Isaac Babel's virtuosity.

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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 the revolution to carry Communism to Europe and the world.

His family in Odessa viewed Babel's choice to go off to the front as a suicide mission, not merely because of the hazards of war but because he was a Jew embedded among fiercely anti-Semitic Cossack soldiers heading into deeply anti-Semitic territory during a period of Ukrainian pogroms and particularly harsh violence against Jews. Babel took the false name Lyutov to disguise his identity, and gave the same name to the narrator of many of the 34 stories derived from his diary to make up Red Cavalry, first published as a collection in 1926. (This well-designed new edition includes as a postscript a 35th story, from the year 1933, after which point in time Babel's works were withdrawn from sale under the totalitarianism and mass censorship of Stalinist rule.) When it came out, the book was translated into all the major European languages, to great acclaim.

Dralyuk's stab at Red Cavalry, in which Babel blended many of the carefully observed facts he recorded in the 1920 diary with fiction, struck me as a more challenging version than the one I had previously read, less rendered toward an American idiom perhaps, yet still maintaining that unsettling quality that makes Babel so distinctive—his subtle and swift tonal key changes from lyrical beauty to brutal horror.

The stories in the cycle are all brief, none more than a few pages (Babel, like Chekhov, was a genius of compression), and Dralyuk's translation showcases their artful mastery. In story after story, the period strikes its mark with heart-piercing skill. Take for example, these lines from the first page of "Crossing the Zbrucz," which opens the collection:

The quiet Volyn bends. Volyn recedes from us into the pearly mist of birch groves and creeps into the flowery hills, its feeble arms getting tangled in thickets of hops. An orange sun rolls across the sky like a severed head, a gentle light glitters in the ravines of clouds and the banners of sunset flutter over our heads. The scent of yesterday's blood and dead horses seeps into the evening coolness. The blackened Zbrucz roars, twisting the foamy knots of its rapids. The bridges are destroyed and we are fording the river.

Right off the bat, Babel undercuts his poeticism with violent imagery, seducing us into the surreal nightmare landscape of war. His juxtapositions are designed for the sake of irony and to uncover what's below the surface. The river has turned savage. It is strewn with carts and someone unseen is drowning in its water, "loudly disparaging the Mother of God."

Like Pushkin before him, Babel said, he sought precision and brevity. Hemingway admired the concision and leanness of his prose. So did Borges, who described his style as attaining "a glory seemingly reserved for poems." Certainly, no other writer pulls off similes and dramatic reveals quite as surprisingly as Isaac Babel, and readers new to his work have a real treat ahead of them. (Fans of Denis Johnson's cult classic, Jesus' Son, should know that Johnson has described that collection of stories as "basically a rip off of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry.")[1] I submit the following images as examples of his virtuosity:

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