I am not as familiar with Eastern European and Russian literature as I am with the usual Western European classics. This ignorance seems to be common. We, in America, are spoonfed Charles Dickens, amused by Cervantes and Dumas, badgered by Jane Austen, and bored by Thomas Hardy. No one ever introduces us to Pushkin or Babel. If you’re especially lucky, you might meet a drama by Chekov or one of Dostoyevsky’s works briefly. Needless to say, I knew Isaac Babel was a Russian-Jew who liked being mysterious and was executed by “The State.” So, I read Babel’s “Autobiographical,” “Odessa,” and “Red Cavalry” stories.
I did not take away, so to speak, a whole lot more than I started with. The stories (which blur the line between historical fact and fictionalized history) are all in media res, confusing, and abrupt. The “characters” are impoverished and sometimes immoral. Their dialogue is nearly incomprehensible at times. Overall, the tone of all the stories is dark, miserable, and mad. I feel that much of what Babel wrote would make a lot more sense if the reader was a Russian-Jew living in, say, 1915.
The first story I read was “Old Shloyme.” It is a very “Jewish” story. But more importantly, it’s the most morbid, dismal, miserable, and unhappy story ever written. It’s not even “tragic,” it’s just depressing to the core. I describe the characters as despondent, desperate, and utterly bereft of joy. Strangely, nestled in the core of the story: the indefatigable Russian spirit full of determination and willpower. Tucked inside the awful impoverished reality is this kernel of the absurd. The word that I want to use is “supra-sane.” Supra-sane is that misty area that occurs after the all-too-sane devolves into madness and the insanity is so thoroughgoing that it becomes sane, or normal, again. It’s the yin/yang concept. This is one of the greatest short stories ever written because it is so miserable and abrupt, but also contains the trademark Russian stubbornness and willfulness. The character Shloyme is both mad and completely sane, but moreso, he’s Russian.
“Red Cavalry” continues with the same feeling of bordering on insanity. By this I mean situations that are so strenuous and chaotic that the only response that helps survival is a response of equal madness. I suspect the Polish-Russian war was like this for Babel. Call Joseph Heller up and tell him to cite Babel as a reference for Catch-22. Babel had been assigned to the first cavalry, under the marshal Semyon M. Budyonny. Budyonny actually has quite a history in the Red Army, with Stalin, and with horses. I can also see why he took issue with Babel’s depictions in “Red Cavalry.” But, if reading these pieces by Babel inspired anything in me, it was to learn more about Budyonny. So, of course, I want to read Budyonny’s The Path of Valor, which, as I understand it, is a five-volume memoir. I doubt it’s as colorful and unique as Babel’s “Red Cavalry.”
Maybe Babel is not writing supra-sane stories. Looking at “Red Cavalry,” I wonder if Babel did not witness one or two “people/events” and then spent his time working and re-working what he witnessed into a narrative. Babel cannot tell us the exact truth, but he also cannot lie. The stories are historical narratives from the Babel-filtered ink. No wonder Babel seemed mysterious.
The most famous piece of “Red Cavalry” is the story “Salt.” I feel I would be remiss not to mention it. It is both startling and muscular. If anything, the story really typifies Babel’s writing. What does it mean to be a member of the Second Platoon? Who/what are they fighting for? Who suffers justly and who suffers unjustly? These are the questions the reader will be confronted with in this piece. Also, there is the very Russian concept, or Zeitgeist, of labor/toiling/work. In my reading, I felt there was an undertone of salvation through work. I do not know if that is accurate, but it is my reader-response. It is not surprising that “Salt” is so famous. The wartime noir feeling heavily resonates through the story.