When the Soviet secret police came for Isaac Babel in the early morning of May 15 1939, he can have had few illusions about what lay ahead. A lengthy roll-call of writers, many of them personal friends, had vanished into the infamous Lubyanka jail, never to be seen or heard of again. Babel was to suffer eight months of imprisonment, torture and forced confessions, before being executed by gun shot in January 1940 after a 20-minute trial for entirely trumped-up charges of treason.
At the moment of his arrest, however, Babel’s thoughts were for his work rather than his personal fate. As the NKVD led him away, the 44-year-old writer turned to his wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, and said, “They did not let me finish”. It was an understandable concern, as despite being one of the most famous writers in the Soviet Union, Babel’s reputation rested on a relatively small body of work — a handful of short stories, stage plays and screenplays.
As Stalin’s purges gripped, Babel’s output dwindled. Eagerly anticipated new publications often turned out to be little more than tweaked versions of existing stories. Instead, Babel retreated into what he called “the genre of literary silence”, a characteristically paradoxical response to an increasingly impossible situation.
Born in Odessa in 1894, Babel’s first short stories appeared in print in 1916, with the help of Maxim Gorky, his life-long patron. Red Cavalry, a collection of 35 stories first published in 1926 and newly translated by Pushkin Press, brought him widespread fame. Closely based on Babel’s experiences as a war correspondent for the Red Army under General Budyonny during the 1920 Soviet-Polish War, Red Cavalry charts the advance of the Soviet army into a newly independent Poland. This was a bloody territorial campaign, waged over towns and villages that today lie predominantly in Ukraine, the current relevance of which is chillingly unmissable.
Compact, irreverent, enigmatic, savage and tender, these stories are filled with Babel’s delight in human foibles and what he calls “frontier misfortunes”. In “Pan Apolek”, an icon painter spreads mayhem by transforming local peasants into saints; in “The Story of a Horse”, a commander makes himself ridiculous over a stolen stallion.
With equal candour, Babel depicts the thrill and misery of battle, and the violent atrocities committed by Cossacks and Poles alike, in particular against Jewish civilians. In “Crossing the Zbrucz”, the narrator discovers his roommate is not sleeping, as he’d presumed, but in fact dead. “His gullet is ripped out, his face is hacked in two, and blue blood sits in his beard like hunks of lead.”
Master of the captivating simile and the bathetic juxtaposition, Babel writes with a kind of languid acuity, combining words with casual exactitude. It is impossible to look at the world the same way after reading Babel. In one story, “The land lay like a cat’s back, overgrown with the shimmering fur of grains.” In another, “the garden path shimmers beneath the black passion of the sky. Thirsty roses sway in the darkness”. The narrative atmosphere is queasy with ambiguity.
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