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|Written by Brendan Blom|
|Wednesday, 08 June 2011 00:00|
Isaac Babel's story cycle Red Cavalry starts with a nightmare within a nightmare. During Russia's 1920 invasion of Poland, a Russian cavalry unit crosses the Zbrucz River. Overhead, "the orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head....The stench of yesterday's blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill." The bridges have been destroyed, so hundreds of men are trying to wade their horses and carts across the river. "Someone sinks, and loudly curses the Mother of God."
Later that night, the narrator, a journalist named Lyutov who is travelling with the cavalry unit, is billeted in the house of a cowering, war-ravaged Jewish family: a woman, two silent, timorous men, and another man who lies in the house's only bed with the blanket pulled over his head. Lyutov, exhausted, eventually lies down in the bed as well, falls asleep, and dreams that his division commander has shotout the eyes of his brigade commender. He is awoken by the woman of the house, who tells him that he is shouting in his sleep, and kicking the old man who has been lying next to him. It is her father. She lifts the blanket off of her father to reveal a slashed throat, a "face hacked in two, and dark blood...clinging to his beard like a clump of lead."
The woman, almost without emotion, tells the story of the man's murder at the hands of Polish soldiers. She finishes by saying, "And now I want you to tell me where one could find another father like my father in all the world!"
And that is the end of the story.
Looking at a picture of Isaac Babel, you would not imagine him to be capable of writing such chilling material. Round-faced, bespectacled, with a gentle, friendly smile, he looks like a kind uncle. This soft exterior, however, belied a morbid curiosity, a desire to answer the really hard questions of life. Why are men cruel to each other? How far will they go in inflicting suffering? His work, and his life, are a painful - but also, sometimes, consoling - answer to those questions.
Babel was the son of a Jewish shopkeeper, born in 1894 in Odessa, a town famous for its vibrant, and occasionally violent, cosmopolitan culture. Exposed early on to state-sanctioned anti-semitism under the Tsarist regime, he became an enthusiastic Communist around the time of the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution. When the Red Army, fresh from its defeat of the White forces in the Russian Civil War, subsequently invaded Poland in 1920 to spread the revolution to Europe and eventually the world, Babel joined up as a writer for the Krasny Kavalerist, the internal newspaper of the Red Cavalry. It was while observing the operations in Poland and writing his journalism pieces that he began to think about writing his short story cycle. When the Red Cavalry collection was eventually published in 1926, it was a thinly-veiled autobiographical account of his experiences - and a great critical and public success.
Told mostly from the point-of-view of Babel's stand-in narrator, the young, bespectacled, Jewish intellectual Lyutov, the tales mix horrific depictions of war and the men who wage it with achingly poetic, almost lurid, descriptions of the scarred landscape. ("The silence of the sunset turned the grass around the castle blue. The moon rose green as a lizard above the pond".)
Babel is a notoriously difficult writer to get a handle of, morally. He is clearly fascinated by the evil that men (and sometimes women) do to each other. His detailed descriptions of horrible acts can be said to glorify violence, or at least diminish its seriousness. One of his stories begins: "The previous night, six Makhno fighters raped a maid. When I heard this the following morning, I decided to find out what a woman looks like after being raped six times."
The portrayal of violence in the stories, however, while often graphic, does not seem to stem from any cruelty intrinsic in the author's character; rather, it is evidence of Babel's profound curiosity. The Soviet poet Osip Mandelstam once asked Babel why he was so interested in violence and death. Did he want to touch it? No, "I just like to have a sniff and see what it smells like," Babel answered.
Babel's writing also clearly shows a deep sympathy for its victims, and he sometimes lets his great confusion and weariness at the tragic waste of life show peek through the images of mindless brutality. One of the minor characters, Grishchuk, a simple wagon-driver, shouts in the midst of a fierce battle,
"What damn stupidity!...All the trouble our womenfolk go to!....What's the point of all the matchmaking, marrying, and in-laws dancing at weddings?
"It makes me want to laugh!" Grishchuk said sadly, and pointed his whip at a man sitting at the side of the road. "It makes me want to laugh that women go to such trouble."
Babel's personal and moral life was as complicated and full of contradictions as his writing. He fathered three children with three different women. Politically, he showed a strange ambivalence towards the Communist regime. Despite his evident disillusionment with the Communist cause, based partly on his observations in the Polish campaign, he remained attached to the Communist government. Although his status as a successful writer gave him the opportunity to travel abroad - primarily to France, where he even had a wife and infant daughter - he always returned to Russia, even when Stalin's tightening grip on power made the country ever more dangerous for uncareful writers.
Babel published no work of note during the 1930s; when questioned, he claimed to be mastering "the genre of silence." He accepted an official position with the government, travelled periodically, translated the works of the Jewish writer Sholem Aleichem, and entered a common-law relationship with Antonina Pirozhkova, with whom he had one of his children, a daughter.
Babel survived Stalin's Great Purge of 1937-38, but was arrested in 1939, and was secretly executed after a 20-minute trial in January 1940. There is much speculation of the reason for his arrest, but no definitive answer; it is possible, though, that his too-honest depiction of the blundering and cruel officers of the Red Cavalry campaign created powerful enemies for him.
Official rehabilitation of Babel and his work did not arrive until after Stalin's death in 1953; and it was only in the 1990s that the true circumstances of his death were revealed, after much campaigning by Pirozhkova and Babel's French-raised daughter, Nathalie.
Pirozhkova, died in Florida in 2010, at the age of 101. She recalled, in her memoir, At His Side: The Last Years of Isaac Babel, his eternal blitheness and curiosity in the face of danger and death, and also his tenderness. In their final minutes together, after his arrest by agents of the NKVD, the precursor to the KGB, they sat together in a taxi on the way to Lubyanka prison: "Babel asked the secret policeman sitting next to him, 'So, I guess you don't get much sleep, do you?' And he even laughed."
Later, outside the prison, Babel kissed his wife, and he told her, "Someday we'll see each other," and then walked through the doors without turning back.
Pirozhkova writes, "I turned to stone, and I could not even cry. For some reason I kept thinking, 'Will they at least give him a glass of hot tea? He can't start the day without it."