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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 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:

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.

By the time I turned the last page of this new edition, I no longer considered its translator but only its emotional effect. An iron spike to the heart. That's a testament both to the translation and to the essence of the work itself.

Emily Raboteau is the author of The Professor's Daughter (Henry Holt), a novel, and Searching for Zion: The Quest for Home in the African Diaspora (Atlantic Monthly Press).

1. Nathan McNamara, The Millions, January 20, 2015, themillions.com/2015/01/is-jesus-son-a-red-cavalry-rip-off.html.

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