Red Cavalry, by Isaac Babel

130080Last January, I read The Day of the Oprichnik by Vladimir Sorokin and was horrified by the rapid emotional cycling of the main character. The same man who, in the morning, could commit rapes and beatings and executions would be the same man who wept at the beauty of an opera. What I didn’t know at the time was this kind of character is part of a Russian character. I saw several of his type in Isaac Babel’s short story collection, Red Cavalry, soon to be reissued by Pushkin Press.

Issac Babel‘s stories are drawn from life. As a young man trying to become a writer, Babel was assigned to the First Cavalry Army in 1920. Red Cavalry began as Babel’s war diary as he fought with the First Cavalry in the Polish-Soviet War—a tidy name for a conflict in which every faction is fighting every other faction and the civilian population, as well. The man in the cavalry mourn their slaughtered horses and weep when they are particularly moved by a song, then turn around and commit mass murder or atrocities on the civilians. The stories in Red Cavalry document a world gone mad.

According to the translator’s note at the beginning of this reissue of Red Cavalry, the collection is considered a masterpiece of Russian literature. Wikipedia quotes the inimitable Jorge Luis Borges on the effect of one of the stories, “The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes. One of the stories, —”Salt”—enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart” (Jorge Luis Borges, Selected Nonfictions, page 164.) The translator, Boris Dralyuk, also comments on the “music” in Babel’s stories. It is a rough music. The stories—vignettes, really—flow into each other. Characters reappear in later stories, lending some coherence to the chaos.

Because the stories tumble into one another, it’s hard to pick any standouts. Many of the story titles were omitted from my advanced reader copy, so I actually read the book as one piece. (I’m not sure which method is more effective, to be honest.) As I read, I had bookmarks in the historical notes at the end so that I could understand the brief references to various commanders, heroes, and villains; the flashes of Polish and Yiddish; and the pertinent history of post-World War I civil war wracked Russia, Ukraine, and Poland.

I suspect that Babel’s stories and vignettes are deliberately confusing because the events themselves were so confusing. Instead of putting political speeches into his characters’ mouths, the combatants and civilians don’t seem to know what anyone is fighting for. To an outside observer, it’s sheer anarchy. (Possibly to an inside observer, too.) In the past, I’ve read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The White Guard, which is set at roughly the same time, but Red Cavalry is only my second exposure to contemporary Russian Civil War literature. Because Red Cavalry was written as the author killed and avoided being killed, it feels truer to the time than The White Guard (serialized in 1925, but not fully published until 1966). That is to say, it feels as true as a war story can feel to anyone who wasn’t there.

I received a copy of this collection from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be published 12 May 2015.

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