How immigration is transforming our society.
The definition of terrorist has drifted far from ground zero.
The return of the culture wars.
The Angolan wars connection to suburban Arizona.
Market Magic's Empty Shell
Days of infamy and memory.
Let's review the tape.
The liberal media strike again.
Israels gravest danger is not the Palestinians.
Bush unilaterally junks the ABM accord.
Washington gives Indians the runaroundagain.
Mumia's death sentence is overturned, for now.
Massey Energy, Inc. targeted by labor and greens.
Phil Radford: Last Call, Save the Ales.
BOOKS: Empires new clothes.
The Empty Theater
BOOKS: Joan Didion vs. the political class.
BOOKS: The Complete Works of Isaac Babel.
FILM: The Devils Backbone of the Spanish Civil War.
December 22, 2001
e have needed Isaac Babel sorely
these past few years, during which weve had to depend on the treacly fantasies
of Spielberg and Hanks for too much of our understanding of war. Weve
needed him even more these past few months, as carnage has yet again been dressed
up as moral crusade. It is hard to think of anyone who has written about war
with as much subtlety, honesty and devastating beauty as Babel, whose Red
Cavalry stories fictionally recount the months that he, a bespectacled Ukrainian
Jew, spent riding with a brutal and anti-Semitic Cossack cavalry unit on the
Polish front in the Russian Civil War.
Take the first of those stories, Crossing the River Zbrucz, which
begins with the image of the sun rolling across the sky like a severed
head, in which the exhausted narrator finds lodging in a Jewish home,
ransacked by the retreating Poles, and lies down next to a sleeping old man.
He is awoken by the mans daughterhe has been yelling in his sleep,
thrashing about. She pulls back the blanket covering the old man beside him,
revealing that his gullet has been ripped out, his face hacked in two.
I want you to tell me, she demands, I want you to tell me
where one could find another father like my father in all the world! There
is no comfort here in the glories of brotherhood, sacrifice and duty, only,
as Babel put it in his diaries, unbearable baseness and crime, and
the discomforting pleasures of Babels flawless prose.
Babel has been lost to the world since 1939, when, just 44, he was arrested
in Moscow and charged, absurdly, with espionage. His real crime was the honesty
of his writing and his refusal to spout the Stalinist line. It wasnt until
1954 that it was revealed he was dead, shot by a firing squad eight months after
his arrest and buried in a mass grave. And it wasnt until 1990 that the
details of Babels secret trial were released. His last recorded words:
I am asking for only one thinglet me finish my work.
Perhaps in part because his life and work were cut so tragically short, and
because his name lingered for so many years in oblivion, Babel is not better
known in the West. Adored by a relatively tiny cult of serious readers and scholars,
in the common imagination Babel has not been elevated into the pantheon of Russian
literary greats, however much he may deserve to join them.
During his lifetime Babel enjoyed an international reputation unmatched by
any living Russian writer save his longtime mentor Maxim Gorky, who christened
him the great hope of Russian literature. Red Cavalry was
first published in English as early as 1929; other collections of his work have
been translated here over the years. Until now, though, his oeuvre has been
scattered among different collections, some of them out of print.
he publication of The Complete
Works of Isaac Babel, edited by Babels daughter Nathalie, is thus
a fairly monumental occasion. Its nearly 1,100 pages include all of his stories,
some previously unpublished, his journalism, two chapters of an unfinished novel,
his diary, plays and screenplays. The project began in 1998, Nathalie Babel
reveals in her foreword, when translator Peter Constantine approached her about
publishing the screenplays. Instead they printed all there was to print. Three
years is not much time to translate a work of this size and depth, and the haste
Particularly in Red Cavalry, the rhythm of Constantines translation
tends to be clunky, his word choices ill-considered. In the story Salt,
for instance, Constantine comes up with this nearly unreadable sentence: The
initiative showed by the fighters who jumped out of the train made it possible
for the struggling railroad authorities to emit sighs from their breasts.
(Compare Walter Morisons tidier version from 1955: The initiative
of the men that had scrambled out of the coaches gave the insulted railway authorities
their breath back.) Such blunders too often deprive Babels stories
of their lyrical punch, sharpening his prose where it should be soft, muddying
his metaphors, and failing to live up to his dictum that no iron spike
can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.
Some of the translations, though, are excellent, especially the later stories.
Many of them are complex coming-of-age tales that combine in a few deft moves
a simultaneous awakening to sex, cruelty and artistic beauty, as in the tender
In the Basement, which ends with the young narrator weeping and
suddenly seeing that the world of tears was so immense and beautiful that
everything except my tears disappeared from before my eyes.
This ability to find beauty amidst squalor is one of the hallmarks of Babels
work. It is, for him, a solemn task to preserve ambiguity and avoid judgement,
not to squeeze the world for morals, to save every ounce of splendor the world
offers, no matter its origins. In Pan Apolek, he writes of a drunken
old painter who travels the countryside and wins the ire of the Catholic Church
for painting religious scenes for pious peasants, with the saints faces
modeled on the peasants own. In the most impoverished and foul-smelling
hovels, Apolek leaves images of Josephs with gray hair neatly parted
in the middle, pomaded Jesuses, many-childed village Marys with parted knees.
Babel writes: I took a solemn oath to follow the example of Pan Apolek.
The sweetness of dreamy malice, the bitter contempt for the swine and dogs among
men, the flame of silent and intoxicating revengeI sacrificed them all
to this oath.
He follows through on his vow, portraying the sensual joys of living without
papering over the miseries that shadow them. One of the most salient images
in the collection comes at the end of The Father, one of Babels
wild tales of dashing Jewish gangsters (who reappear in Babels plays and
screenplays) in pre-revolutionary Odessa. Two gangsters walk past a cemetery,
plotting extortion and revenge. The story ends with the sentence, Young
men were pulling girls behind the fences, and kisses echoed on the gravestones.
Constantine generally does a better job translating the Odessa stories, and
all the stories that rely on a more vernacular style. Babels 1920 Diary,
which became the basis for the Red Cavalry stories, is very forceful
here, recording his steady loss of faith in his Bolshevik ideals. Why
am I gripped by a longing that will not pass? he asks. Because I
am far from home, because we are destroying, moving forward like a whirlwind,
like lava, hated by all, life is being shattered to pieces, I am at a huge,
never-ending service for the dead. And later, This is not a Marxist
Revolution, it is a Cossack uprising that wants to win all and lose nothing.
he exhaustion and revulsion expressed in the diary contrast with the propaganda
he simultaneously penned. If in his diaries he admitted that the Red Armys
treatment of the Jews was no better than that of the counter-revolutionary Whites,
in an article recounting a pogrom conducted by the latter he was nonetheless
able to froth: Slaughter them, Red Army fighters! Stamp harder on the
rising lids of their rancid coffins!
These contradictions survive in the Red Cavalry stories, which gain
their force from the tension between Babels alienation from the Cossack
soldiers around him, his disgust with their brutality, and his longing to be
as strong and cruel as they. In After the Battle, the narrator (named
Lyutov, the alias adopted by Babel to hide his Jewishness from the Cossacks)
is cursed for his cowardice by the one Cossack he has managed to befriend. The
village floated and bulged, crimson clay oozing from its gloomy wounds,
he writes. I was exhausted, and, crouching beneath the crown of death,
walked on, begging fate for the simplest abilitythe ability to kill a
Babel never shies away from wars real horrors, never sweetens them with
false sentiment, but neither does he cover over wars pernicious but equally
real attractions. Again and again, violence and eros stand disturbingly side
by side. In My First Goose, he admires the brutal figure of his
division commander: I was taken aback by the beauty of his gigantic body.
His long legs looked like two girls wedged to their shoulders in riding
Elsewhere this awful sensuality resides in the landscape, A naked corpse
lay on the embankment. And the rays of the moon streamed through the dead legs;
and in the universe itself, The sky changes colortender blood pouring
from an overturned bottleand a gentle aroma of decay envelops me.
Its not surprising that there is nothing as dangerous as eros, or as
subtle as truth, in the discourse surrounding our latest war. Sixty years later,
its hard not to mourn Babels death, to regret that theres
no one around to tear aside the pious lies, to wrench some fragile beauty from
this world of tears.
Ben Ehrenreich is a freelance writer based in Los Angeles.
Neve Gordon teaches politics at Ben-Gurion University in Israel and can be reached at [email protected].
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