Emily Raboteau

A Spike to the Heart

Isaac Babel's virtuosity.

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The land lay like a cat's back overgrown with the shimmering fur of grains. [61]
Hidden behind sprawling shanties, a synagogue squats on the barren soil—eyeless, gap-toothed, as round as a Hasidic hat. [65]
The machine guns were hammering faster and faster with hysterical obstinacy. [69]
His stomach had been torn out, his guts were sliding onto his knees, and you could see his heartbeats. [69]

Or, take the astonishing end of "Crossing the Zbrucz" with its rapid succession of epiphanies. In the penultimate paragraph, a young pregnant Jewish woman in whose ransacked household the narrator is billeted awakens the narrator from a nightmare. He is screaming in his sleep and kicking her father. Her father had been objectified on the previous page as an anonymous sleeper huddled against the wall alongside ruined furniture, ripped clothing, human excrement, and a shattered Passover plate, with a blanket over his head. His individual personhood comes as the first surprise. Then the young woman removes the blanket in a gesture Babel deploys like a rising stage curtain. "It's a dead old man, flat on his back. His gullet is ripped out, his face is hacked in two, and blue blood sits in his beard like a hunk of lead."

A lesser writer might have ended the story with that merciless revelation of human cruelty. Yet Babel had the wisdom to turn the key once more, allowing us access to a chamber of pathos. The Jewess tells the narrator that her father's final (and unsuccessful) plea to the Poles who slaughtered him was to kill him outdoors, out of her sight. The story ends with a question she poses to the narrator. It is a question he cannot answer, perhaps because Babel himself, in his disenchantment, had grown uncertain of what answer might justify such suffering: Where else in the world, she wants to know, can she find another father like hers? This has to be one of the most hauntingly tragic story-endings ever written, yet it's constructed like the punchline to a well-built joke. (Another characteristic of Babel's style is his excellent timing, not to mention his improbable sense of humor.)

Like many of the other linked stories in the collection, "Crossing the Zbrucz" derives much of its impact from Babel's outsider status. Here was a Jew pretending not to be a Jew among the Jews of the war zone, and among the Cossacks. As the Red and White Armies battled each other, both committed atrocities against Jews, and Red Cavalry exposes this. In "Gedali," the Jewish shopkeeper Gedali pointedly asks, "where's the revolution and where's the counter-revolution?" Our narrator must confront his double, seemingly irreconcilable identity as both a Jew and a Russian fighter for the revolution.

Each image, each event, is calculated to particular effect, and the order of the cycle takes the narrator (and, by extension, the reader) on a journey from innocence to knowledge, from observation to participation, and, on the battlefield, from initial triumph to increasingly bitter defeat. By the time Lyutov discloses in the 11th story, "The Tachanka Doctrine," that he's "ceased to be a pariah among the Cossacks," we understand how he's reached that point. Three stories earlier, in "My First Goose," he earned their camaraderie and respect by callously crushing the head of a goose with his boot and ordering a woman to cook it. Some of the stories, such as the frequently anthologized "Salt," are told from the perspective of Cossack characters, highlighting Babel's knack for different idioms of speech.

Given his experience on the front, it makes sense that Babel would reach in "Guy de Maupassant" for militaristic terms to describe the power of language and literature. He had very specific ideas about what deserved to be stressed, and when. That was the peculiar weapon of his art. "He was not only after incident but essence," editor Carol J. Avins writes in the introduction to Babel's 1920 Diary (Yale University Press, 1995). In the end, his skill at deploying the grotesque detail for aesthetic resonance and the beautiful detail for emphasizing horror couldn't save him. (It also didn't help his case that he was romantically entangled with the wife of the head of the secret police.) Having written fiction with a factual backdrop, Babel antagonized many figures who'd appeared in his stories and then went on to become powerful allies of Stalin—Semyon Budyonny, for instance, one of the first Marshals of the Soviet Union, who hated the portrayal of his character in Red Cavalry and wanted its author punished. First, Babel was silenced. Then he was executed. Yet his voice endures, particularly in his portrayal of the havoc of war.

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