Red Cavalary is a collection of short stories based on Babel’s experience as a journalist attached to the First Cavalry during the Polish-Soviet War of the 1920s. Babel spared neither the Russians nor the Poles in his stories: the casual brutality they inflicted on each other and, above all, on the Jews (“guilty in everyone’s eyes”) makes somber reading. Semyon Budyonny, commander of the First Cavalry Army, hated Babel for his honest reporting and tried for some time to have him executed. But, before Stalin’s ascendancy, Babel enjoyed relative literary freedom and became one of the most celebrated stars of the Soviet Union.
“My First Goose,” is the best known story of the book; this is a shame because, while a fine story, it is not nearly the best nor is it representative of Babel’s style. Babel is, in most of his stories, a silent observer, in some cases recounting a story told to him by one of the men in his unit, and marking his own presence only at the very end by saying “This story was told to me on this occasion by so-and-so.”
The imagery is extraordinary, beautiful and original – the moon in the sky, “stuck up there like an insolent splinter”; the tall man who “cleaved the hot lustre of the air with the gallows of his long bones.” Babel dozed in a hut by candlelight, “dreams prancing around me like kittens.” This new translation by Boris Dralyuk is exceptional: The prose-poetry has somehow survived its metamorphosis. There are passages in this volume as extraordinary as any you will encounter in modern literature.
Babel liked short stories: no doubt he would have produced a novel had he lived long enough, but the short format suits him. He likes to convey a total picture to the reader – down to the finest, subtlest emotional nuances – and then, having laid the table with a scene both extraordinarily exotic and painfully true, he discards it and moves on to the next one.
The Stalin regime made it impossible for Babel to continue writing – he published another collection of short stories, the Odessa Tales, in 1931, then a play, Maria, and then nothing. The play was cancelled by the secret police during rehearsals and would not be performed in Russia until after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
Unlike most of the popular Soviet writers of the time, he refused to pander to the regime, preferring to say nothing if he could not say it honestly: In 1934 Babel remarked ironically to his colleagues that he was becoming a master of “the genre of silence.”
His wife had left the Soviet Union to settle in Paris. After years of petitioning, he was granted the right to visit her there. She pleaded with him to remain in Paris; he pleaded with her to return to Russia. In the end, he went back alone, where his eloquent silence and his Jewishness were becoming obnoxious to the regime. He was arrested by the NKVD in late 1939, accused spying, and in January 1940, after a trial that lasted twenty minutes, he was sentenced to death and shot.
Thus communism made short work of one of the greatest artists of the twentieth century.
Overall Goodness Rating (OGR): 9/10
Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel. First published 1926. This edition, Pushkin Press, 2014. Trans. Boris Dralyuk. 219 pages.