I received an advanced review copy of this title from Pushkin Press through NetGalley.
Isaac Babel, who was a journalist and propagandist for the Red Army in the 1920’s during the Russian war against Poland, used his diary as a source for the stories in this collection. Babel’s narrator, like himself, is a Jewish intellectual who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the Cossack soldiers in the regiment to which he is assigned. Also, his attempts at propaganda don’t quite benefit the Bolshevik cause, although they don’t really harm it either; it is surprising and sad that the Soviets had Babel killed after all.
Babel provides us with a vivid account of the scenes, horrors, sights, sounds and even the humor that comes from war. One of my favorite stories is entitled “Pan Apolek.” Apolek is a local artist who has been commissioned to paint the holy scenes in one of the churches that the narrator visits. When Apolek decides to put the faces of local citizens on the most holy figures in the Bible, there is a religious uproar. But the citizens themselves seem uplifted that their faces are captured in art in this most holy place.
The strongest parts of all of these stories are the many and varied scenes which Babel sets for us. He describes not only churches, but towns and the everyday happenings of its citizens. For example, as the narrator walks around a village waiting for the Sabbath he describes the various shops and shopkeepers he encounters. Their stores seem to be closed but we are not sure if they are closed permanently because of the war. He also describes the army on the march and the dead bodies they encounter as they make their way from one town to another.
The narrator describes cavalry leaders and infantrymen as well as some of the more unimportant or auxiliary positions. He gives us the story of his wagon driver, for instance, and the story of a shepherd who contracted syphilis while sleeping with a prostitute bought by his own father. There are so many different characters which the narrator encounters that it is impossible to sum them up neatly in one review.
This is not a typical story with a clearly delineated plot and developed characters. It is a collection of meandering, stream of consciousness stories about one man’s reaction to the landscapes, sights, sounds and people he encounters during a war. The story mimics the chaos of warfare and many of the narratives end abruptly, like the lives of the soldiers in the Red Cavalry. Babel’s stories are an important piece of Russian history and literature which I am glad that Pushkin Press has decided to bring to our attention.
About The Author:
Isaak Emmanuilovich Babel (Russian: Исаак Эммануилович Бабель; 1901 – 1940) was a Russian language journalist, playwright, literary translator, and short story writer. He is best known as the author of Red Cavalry, Story of My Dovecote, and Tales of Odessa, all of which are considered masterpieces of Russian literature. Babel has also been acclaimed as “the greatest prose writer of Russian Jewry.” Loyal to, but not uncritical of, the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, Isaak Babel fell victim to Joseph Stalin’s Great Purge due to his longterm affair with the wife of NKVD chief Nikolai Yezhov. Babel was arrested by the NKVD at Peredelkino on the night of May 15, 1939. After “confessing”, under torture, to being a Trotskyist terrorist and foreign spy, Babel was shot on January 27, 1940. The arrest and execution of Isaak Babel has been labeled a catastrophe for world literature.