Isaac Babel's Конармия (Red Cavalry) - crude impression

2023-03-20 @Literature

Here we’ve a collection of short stories spanning Isaac Babel’s military service in the First Cavalry outfit during the Soviet-Polish war campaign circa 1920. Much of the more intricate narrative molded itself from the loose plaster of Babel’s rather minimalist, surviving journal entries, also separately published. Both the stories and the journal offer insight for not only the historical, eye-witness value, but the creative process.

Remarkable writing, hands down. Among Russian 20th-century prose, I’ve rarely encountered this combination, of this quality. Terse (the stories are very short), but beautiful. Dense, but not overbearingly. A multi-textural suite of contrasts.

Side-by-side, like exquisite contra-punctual polyphony, we see bleak brutality with beauty that transcends the eye.

Post-revolutionary military exploits across northwestern Ukraine and southeast Poland: Gunfire, shrapnel, treachery, antisemitism, debris, decrepitude; blunt, premeditated, passionate slaying of men.

Then a sudden tonal transfusion: beautiful landscapes, personal (sardonically twisted) accounts, letter exchanges, Cossack camaraderie (or lack thereof), the housing, the villages, the regionalism.

We tour the Jewish quarters, hear rabbinical discourse, marvel in the ethno-cultural portraits and church architecture. And this being a cavalry unit, naturally, we see to the horse.

Babel often relates through an external lens, even if employing first-person perspective. And not without some expected inventiveness. The fact is not sans fiction.

If not formally a poem, the work exhibits a high poetic coefficient: abundant in digression, repetition, lyricism, metaphors and severe imagery. A handful of stories I could as easily imagine reformatted into lines of free verse without as much as a word changed.

And how about those incessant signature similes, tossed around like Sancho Panza proverbs? And go figure, they don’t feel at all exorbitant. The similes, for their absurdity, seem ever sharp, ever unexpected and ever hilarious.

Speaking of similes and such and other clever constructs, Babel loves repetition, verbatim, time and time again. And yet the device appears but to emblazon, to add integrity and even to aid the narrative continuity.

And how about the dark, devilish satire of character occasioned across such satirical powerhouses as Heller, Mayakovski, or Bulgakov, among the few that come to mind?

A beautiful read, though necessitating my notoriously slowed down pace to account for the military and period idioms, the contractions, the alien objects, and the poetically dense prose. But the adagio asai tempo made it all the more appreciable.

Isaac Babel can sure write. Though I can’t speak for the quality of translated effort out there. Probably dismal. Pursue at own folly.

A handful of my favourite stories from among the 35 comprising the collection: Пан Аполек, Гедали, Мой первый гусь, Кладбище в Козине, История одной лошади, Соль, Афонька Бида, Песня, Сын рабби.

Happy reading.

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