While it is true that the more you know about Russia’s 1919-1920 war with Poland, the easier it is to understand all the nuances in Isaac Babel’s collection of short stories Red Cavalry, it is no less true that even without that knowledge, the book is a treasure to be savored. Babel, who served as a correspondent during the war, published the stories first in a number of periodicals and then as a book in 1926. A final story, “Argamak,” was added as a postscript in 1933. All 35 stories are newly translated by Boris Dralyuk in this new edition from Pushkin Press.
Often acknowledged as the most significant of the Russian-Jewish authors writing in the Russian language, many of his best stories in Red Cavalry deal with the alienation he felt as both a Jew and an intellectual. Certainly the key example is perhaps the best known story from the collection, “My First Goose.” The narrator, presumably Lyutov who seems to be the narrative voice throughout the book, but is often unnamed in specific stories, describes his reception joining with the Sixth Division. The officers immediately see him as a problem and the Cossacks want no part of him.
Babel, as he often does in his stories, spotlights the precise detail to illustrate his point, in this case the alienation is clear from the reaction to the narrator’s glasses. It is the glasses that sets him apart from the others and they make him welcome by throwing his trunk over a gate and passing gas. It is only when he kills a peasant woman’s goose and orders her to prepare it for his diner that they are willing to accept him as one of their own. When a Rebbe’s son is seen smoking on the Sabbath in “The Rebbe” or the narrator is unable to ride a horse in the acceptable Cossack manner in “Argamak,” these are the kind of seemingly random details that tell the real story.
War is brutal and brutalizing. The language used to describe it may at times be poetic, but the poetry pales in context. A vicious soldier yearns for the warmth and beauty of Italy while persecuted Jews live in squalor. The content may verge on the comical. A woman pretends to be nursing a sack of salt swathed in cloth in order to get aboard a train. A renegade artist uses villagers as models for his religious icons.
If there is poetry, it is poetry painting over a hellish vision. If there is comedy, it is comedy of the blackest sort.
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