Red Cavalry
Isaac Babel
Boris Dralyuk, Translator

(Pushkin Press)

    Fields of scarlet poppies blossom around us, a midday breeze plays in the yellowing rye and virgin buckwheat rises on the horizon like the wall of a distant monastery. The quiet Volyn bends. Volyn recedes from us into the pearly mist of birch groves and creeps into the flowery hills, its feeble arms getting tangled in the thickets of hops. An orange sun rolls across the sky like a severed head, a gentle light glitters in the ravines of clouds and banners of sunset flutter over our heads. The scent of yesterday's blood and dead horses seeps into the evening coolness. The blackened Zbrucz roars, twisting the foamy knots of its rapids. A stately moon lies on the waves. The horses sink up to their backs and sonorous streams trickle between hundreds of horses' legs. Someone is drowning, loudly disparaging the Mother of God.
--- "Crossing the Zbrucz"

In 1920 Emmanuilovich Babel was assigned to Soviet Russia's 1st Cavalry Army, and was witness to the Polish-Soviet War - - - February 1919 to March 1921. Most of the fighting that Babel witnessed was in what is now the Ukraine.

He was correspondent for a widely distributed weekly, The Red Cavalryman, and during the twenty-four months of the war, became famous for his prose as well as his impeccably honest (and often very comic) style. Instead of sending in dry propagandist dispatches from the front that had been the staple of most correspondents during the previous world war, now, under the relative freedoms of the early Bolshevik revolution, Babel took it upon himself to tell the truth.

The hunger, the cold, the arbitrary decisions --- whether to kill prisoners or not; who got sent into battle; who intrigued to stay behind; the casual rapes of the Ukranian women (and too, the equally casual decisions to let them go).

And those who fought on when wounded. Those who immediately retreated to the casualty areas. The constant Jewish pogroms that accompanied the troops. The maddened characters both within and without the army.

Marshal Semyon Budyonny of the First Cavalry was infuriated with Babel's unvarnished descriptions of marauding Red Cossacks, even demanded his execution. However, due to his friendship with Gorky, Babel was not threatened again until twenty years had passed . . . when Stalin decided his writings to be treasonous and had him murdered at Butyrka Prison.

§   §   §

In all of Red Cavalry, the pure light of Babel's style shines through with this excellent translation by Boris Dralyuk --- a prose rendered poetically, worthy of a Yeats or a Whitman or a Gogol or even the poetic wartime prose of The Red Badge of Courage or A Farewell to Arms.

  • "Listen," said Dolgushov when we rode up to him. "I'm finished . . . Got it?"

    "Got it," Grishchuk replied, stopping the horses.

    "Got to waste a cartridge on me," Dolgushov said sternly.

    He sat leaning against a tree. His boots were stuck wide apart. Without taking his eyes off me he carefully lifted his shirt. His stomach had been torn out, his guts were sliding onto his knees, and you could see his heartbeats.

    "The Poles'll come, have some fun with me. Take my papers, write my mother what's what . . . "

    "No," I said, and spurred my horse.

    Dolgushov spread his blue palms out on the ground and examined them incredulously.

    "Running away?" he murmured, sliding down "Run, you bastard . . . "

  • And fixing the washerwoman with his naked eye, full of adoration, Galin tirelessly stirs the crypts of fallen emperors. He stands stooped, doused by the moon that's stuck up there like an insolent splinter; the printing machines clatter away somewhere close by and the radio station shines with a pure light. Nestling up against the cook Vasily's shoulder, Irina listens to the dull and senseless muttering of love. Above her head, stars trudge though the sky's black seaweed. The washer woman dozes, makes the sign of the Cross over her puffy lips and looks at Galin wide-eyed. This is how a young girl who longs for the nuisance of conception looks at a professor devoted to science.

  • The Pan General drops the reins, trains his Mauser on me and makes a hole in my leg.

    "All right," I think, "you're mine, sweetheart --- you'll spread those legs."

    I go flat and plant two rounds in the little horse. I was sorry about that stallion. A little Bolshevik, that stallion was --- a regular little Bolshevik. All coppery like a coin, tail like a bullet, leg like bowstrings. Thought I'd bring him to Lenin alive, but it didn't work out. I liquidated that little horse. It tumbled like a bride, and my ace come out of the saddle. He took off running, but then he turned around again and made another draught-hole in my figure. So now I've got three decorations for action against the enemy.

§   §   §

It's the arch mix of love for a gorgeous horse, touched by irony, "a little Bolshevik," "bring him to Lenin" (this is 1920) which, when shot, "tumbled like a bride."

And then "my ace" shot him again - - - gave him "three decorations:" these are the stark, stolid words of a soldier. This paragraph emerges as pure poetry, wrought by one who has the ability that Keats labelled "negative capability," the power to contain one (or more) contradictions in a few words. Contradictions of language and thought and philosophy and reality and romance, all soldered (or soldiered) together in a blending of incongruence . . . words united in an artistic act of defiance, both literary and military.

There are many passages in Red Cavalry which will float over our heads for, after all, we are in the midst of an eloquence from a century past, words of wars and cultures and revolutions and peoples and prejudices that must be hard to conceive of now. But the truth hides in plain sight throughout, giving the reader a rhetorical gold mine, provided by a man whose words were so powerful that they would ultimately kill him; one who was capable of insulting the powers with words that would lead to his own demise.

And, at the same time, being one who was capable of telling the story of his old friend Lyoka, dying as well:

    "To the last," Lyoka repeats ecstatically and stretches his arms to the sky, gathering the night about him like a halo. The tireless wind, the clean wind of night, sings, filled with ringing, gently rocking the soul. Stars blaze in the dark like wedding rings; they fall on Lyovka, get tangled in his hair and face in his shaggy head.

--- L. W. Milam
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