‘Red Cavalry’ by Isaac Babel – The Insanity of War

 

‘Red Cavalry’ by Isaac Babel   (1926) – 204 pages       Translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk

War is terrible. It is a long-standing fact of human life.  On frequent occasions humans go to war and murder and maim each other in large numbers. Now that there are weapons than can murder millions of people in one stroke, there have been efforts to prevent wars from happening.  However can anyone or anything change human nature which has been deeply embedded in society for thousands of years?  There is always the chance that some mad man will rise to power anywhere in the world.  Even without a deranged man in power, the chances for a war to develop are quite high.

‘Red Cavalry’, a collection of short stories, paints a vivid picture of the madness of war.  War gives individuals an opportunity to go insane. During the Russo-Polish War of 1920, a war I had never heard of before, journalist Isaac Babel was assigned to a Cossack unit on the Russian side.  He was an early embedded war reporter.  After this war ended, Babel wrote a non-fiction book about his war experiences which he later rewrote into fictional stories for ‘Red Cavalry’ in 1926.

When he is assigned to his unit, Babel is a subject of derision by the Cossack cavalry soldiers.  He wears thick glasses; they call him ‘four eyes’.  He is more an educated journalist than a soldier.

“I was alone among these people, whose friendship I had failed to win.”     

Worst of all to the Cossack soldiers, he is a Jew.  Both the Cossacks as well as their foes, the Poles, detest the Jews and treat them horribly. In one of the stories, Babel predicts the Holocaust about twenty years before it actually occurred.

The peasant made me light his cigarette from his.

“Jew’s guilty in everyone’s eyes,” he said, “yourn and ourn. There’ll be mighty few of them left after the war.  How many Jews are there in the world anyway?”

“Ten million,” I answered and began to bridle my horse.

“There’ll be two hundred thousand left,” the peasant cried out and touched my hand, afraid that I would leave.

But I climbed into the saddle and galloped off toward the staff. 

One thing that most war correspondents miss that Babel gets is the glee of soldiers when they wound, kill, or defeat the enemy soldiers.  The killing of an enemy soldier is a joyous occasion for a soldier.

In the story “Afonka Bida”, Babel captures the anguish of a Cossack cavalry soldier when his horse is shot out from under him.  The soldier expresses more grief for his dying horse than he would ever have for a dying fellow soldier.

These early days after the Russian Revolution were a time of optimism for many of the Russian people including Isaac Babel.  In many towns and villages the peasants rose up against local tyrants who had been oppressing them for decades.  However this optimism did not last long because in less than ten years the Soviet Union installed an even worse tyrant, Joseph Stalin, to rule the entire country.  Stalin and his lieutenants wound up murdering Isaac Babel in 1940 on trumped up charges.

Even though the stories are fiction, they are more like powerful journalistic vignettes rather than well-crafted stories. The stories are crude and raucous with too many characters who are underdeveloped in these very short stories.  The transformation from journalism to fiction seems incomplete to me.  I found these stories difficult to digest.   Between Isaac Babel and Anton Chekhov there is no comparison; Chekhov is much the better story writer.  However Babel does capture the intense feel of a battle and the scenes he has created are crucial.

 

Grade :   B

 

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7 responses to this post.

  1. I’ve got this collection too, and also The Odessa Tales. I think they were recommended to me by Elif Batuman in her book The Possessed, which is all about the Russian authors that she fell in love with when she was a student. But now *smacks forehead* I can’t find her book here at home to find out what she said about Babel. I guess the only thing to do is read some of them and find out for myself, eh?

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    • Hi Lisa,
      I did not know Elif Batuman wrote a book about the Russian authors. I’ve read most of the pre-Communist greats, but it must have been really difficult afterwards to be a fiction writer when you ultimately might be killed for it like Isaac Babel was. Bulgakov did produce the masterpiece ‘The Master and Margarita’, but that didn’t get published in the Soviet Union until 25 years after it was written. One of my favorites is Abram Tertz who wrote in the 1960s thru 1980s, but he was harassed by the government too.

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  2. Would he have written these as fictional pieces because it was too risky to do a journalistic/non fiction account – they could have been viewed as critical of the ruling regime?

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    • Hi BookerTalk,
      Babel was a journalist when he was war reporting and did write his experiences as non-fiction vignettes which he later turned into fiction. I just felt his transformation into fiction writer was incomplete. Things were not so bad for writers under Lenin as they were under Stalin.

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  3. Babel was an excellent writer, and it does us good to be reminded of the realities of war. The trouble is that nowadays, with the remote control ways of killing we have, we’ve become desensitised. We need to remember what we’re actually doing when we take another human’s life.

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    • Hi Kaggsy,
      Yes, we’ve made it just too easy to kill women and children and other non-participants, much different from the days when two Knights faced each other and fought each other to the death.

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