Friday, July 18, 2008

Works of Isaac Babel discussion: The Red Calvary Stories

Konarmiya (Red Cavalry)
and The Odessa Stories
Picture source

"In late May 1920, the First Cavalry of the Soviet Red Army, under the command of General Budyonny, rode into Volhynia, today the border region of western Ukraine and eastern Poland. The Russian-Polish campaign was under way, the new Soviet government's first foreign offensive, which was viewed back in Moscow as the first step toward spreading the doctrine of World Revolution to Poland, then to Europe, then to the world. Babel chronicled this campaign in his Red Cavalry stories",... blending "fiction and fact, creating a powerful effect that is particularly poignant in his rendering of the atrocities of war. The stories were published in magazines and newspapers between 1923 and 1926.... In 1926, thirty-four of the stories were included in the book Konarmia (translated into English as Red Calvary), which quickly went into eight editions and was translated into English, French, Italian, Spanish, and German."
- The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, pages 197 - 200, edited by Nathalie Babel, translated by Peter Constantine.

The short pieces that make up the Red Cavalry stories (and the additional stories in the “Red Cavalry Cycle” section in The Complete Works of Isaac Babel) are brief tales from the author riding with the First Calvary during the Russian-Polish war (see the above excerpt for the stories’ context). The stories may intersect with other stories, continue previous tales, tell the fate of characters introduced earlier, or in a few cases they stand alone. The collection as a whole is greater than the sum of the individual tales, the minor portraits adding up to an expansive canvas. Since Babel is new to me, I found his style quite a pleasure. Or rather his styles, since most of the stories were unique in their approach in narration. Two characteristics, however, are consistent throughout his writing (and not just in these tales)—irony and ambiguity. The sparseness of prose does not lessen the powerful force in the choice of words. The similes and metaphors really stand out in the combination of their economy and descriptiveness (all quotes from the Peter Constantine translation), adding dimensions in the comparison:

  • Regarding Eliza, a Jesuit priest’s housekeeper: “Her sponge cakes ad the aroma of crucifixion.” (The Church in Novograd)
  • “…(W)ho was living at the time in Radzivillov, a mangled little town that looked like a tattered old whore.” “Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May over which women and horses wander.” (The Story of a Horse)
  • “The orange sun is rolling above the sky like a severed head…”. (Crossing the River Zbrucz)

As the last simile insinuates, the war and the atrocities it bred are a large focus of these stories. “Crossing the River Zbrucz” starts off as a simple story describing the cavalry entering Polish territory. But the description of nature takes a sinister and ghastly turn, mimicking the carnage that is occurring all around. The violence invades the narrator’s subconscious, directing his dreams as well as his somnambulant actions. “The Letter” highlights violence between family members, and (to me) raises the question of how much brutality was already present but fragilely kept in check. “The Road to Brody” depicts “(t)he chronicle of our everyday crimes”, going beyond the direct brutality of humans but affecting the living world as well as indirectly impacting people (through needlessly destroying their livelihood, for example). A different Coassack narrates the bulk of “Berestechko,” and his ease and casual nature in describing atrocities adds another layer of revulsion for the reader. Several stories in the “Cycle” tales don’t hesitate in describing the uses of rape during war. Sometimes the surreal nature of war and everyday life is highlighted, such as in “Czesniki” where people are concerned about breeding their horses in the middle of a battle. And in “After the Battle” the narrator chillingly asks for what he feels should be a basic right: “I was exhausted, and, crouching beneath the crown of death, walked on, begging fate for the simplest ability—the ability to kill a man.”

“My First Goose” is one of my favorite stories from this collection since it pulls together many of Babel’s themes. The narrator, wearing glasses and thus regarded as an intellectual (and what seems to be code for Jewish), is not accepted with the division to which he was assigned. After his trunk is thrown out in the street by one comrade and another soldier repeatedly farts in his face, the narrator takes his anger out on the (Jewish) family where the division is billeted (or rather the residence they had appropriated). Crushing the neck of what is probably the family’s lasdo t possession, a goose, the narrator skewers it with his sword and demands the old woman of the house to cook it for him. This earns him a new respect with the Cossacks. After reading the news to his comrades, the narrator lays down to sleep: “I dreamed and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, crimson with murder, screeched and bled.” While this quote references the cost of his acceptance with a murderous horde, the most chilling thing about the story is the title—his first goose. There were more? And were any of those ‘geese’ human?

The irony of a Jew riding with the Cossacks is never directly addressed but is hinted at—Babel seems to assume the reader will understand the incongruity. (Other stories hint at the narrator’s lack of acceptance due to his schooling and Jewish background) Reading the 1920 Diary shows some of the sources for the stories, yet how much is fact and how much is fiction in the stories is still indeterminable. The narrator usually appears as a thinly disguised Babel. One irony in Babel’s blend of fact and fiction is that he was fighting to spread the oppression and violence inherent in Communism under the guise of liberating others. In “Evening”, a soldier chastises Babel for being tired of this life with the Red Cavalry: “We’re cracking the nut for you, and soon enough you will be able to see the meat inside, at which point you’ll take your thumb out of your mouth and sing the glories of the new life in striking prose…”. This echoes Lenin’s justification of breaking a few eggs to make an omelet (appropriated from Robespierre). The party language weaves in and out of the stories, explicit at times like in “Salt”, where what bothers one idealistic soldier is the lie a woman tells in order to ride a train instead of the desperate plight the army causes the civilians (which of course the Soviet army was there to ‘help’). Lies run throughout the stories, from the personal to the state, although it is difficult to differentiate at times the actions of the invading army from the Polish army due to the anti-Semitism present in both. The piercing of the Soviet fiction by the junk dealer “Gedali” causes the Babel character to respond with empty slogans. Both sides steal from Gedali and threaten him with violence, while the narrator replies “The Revolution cannot not shoot, Gedali…because it is the Revolution.” While Gedali claims not to understand the Revolution, he clearly grasps the inherent falsehoods. The liberators from the east offer nothing the oppressed desire. An additional indicator of things to come is the importance of propaganda that the narrator participates in, eagerly devouring what is offered while churning out more to educate the masses. The biggest irony is having a Jew ride with the Cossacks to “liberate” the largely Jewish population of eastern Poland (at that time)—accepted by neither his comrades nor those he oppresses. What makes it compelling is that the narrator has a moral core, yet he refuses to pass judgment on what he sees going on around him. These ambiguities and ironies make it difficult to nail down Babel’s opinion on what he is witnessing, although his language does give definite hints.

In the stories, religion plays varying roles of importance but the most humorous case (as well as the most explicit comment) is with “Pan Apolek”. One of the few joyous characters in these tales, Apolek is a wandering artist that inserts citizens’ faces in his religious paintings. After a falling out with the local church regarding his paintings, we hear his price list:

“Fifteen zloty for the Virgin Mary, twenty-five zloty for the Holy Family, and fifty zloty for the Last Supper portraying all the client’s family. The client’s enemy can be portrayed as Judas Iscariot, for which an extra ten zloty will be added to the bill.”

Despite the Catholic Church trying to stop his blasphemous (to them) paintings, “there was no shortage of commissions.” The local peasantry defends Apolek for blurring the everyday with the holy. The church's lack of concern for the mundane life of the peasantry while it focuses solely on the exemplary life of the divine resonates throughout Babel’s work. Yet is this estimation of religion as useless (at best) or tyrannical (at worst) really Babel’s thoughts or simply the Soviet line? Because Apolek is painted in such a flattering light, for one moment you think you know. But the narrator’s reaction to Apolek’s rambling heresies at the end of the story once again leaves you unable to know for certain.

First Cavalry monument, Lviv, Ukraine
Picture source


The Argumentative Old Git said...

Thank you for this. I read these stories (in the translation by David McDuff) a few years ago, and while they were startling, I felt they were presenting to me a world so very alien that I couldn't quite get to grips with them.

I'm pleased to see you picked out "My First Goose" and "Salt": these stories made a very vivid impression on me also. But your post reminds me that I really should revisit Babel: the world he presents is not pretty, but the truth often isn't very pretty.

Dwight Green said...

Thanks for the note. It's been such a long time since I've read him and I've been looking at the book, wanting to read him again. His work really does reward repeated reading.