Thursday, February 4, 2010
Women and Horses
One can’t read Isaac Babel without recognizing his suburb craftsmanship. He writes no accidental sentences. In terms of the prose, these stories are all perfect, apart or as pieces of a whole. Each sentence is well-crafted. Each story is a masterful description of what the Soviet campaign against the Poles in 1920 felt like at the level of the individual combatant or civilian. The campaign was masculine, brutal, and fast-moving; and it devastated the countryside.
Babel gets war right: as a reporter, he avoids any trace of glorification or self-congratulation. He’s learned the lessons of modernism: his Cossacks—officers and ordinary cavalrymen alike—aren’t particularly heroic. They are brave and resilient but they are equally inhuman and thuggish. And Babel makes the humane decision to tell his readers as much about the civilians caught up in the campaigns, as he does about the motivations of his protagonists. After completing the cycle of stories, the reader knows as much about the sufferings of the populace as he or she does about the generals.
Most importantly, Babel describes the sufferings of Jewish townspeople, who were victims of Cossack anti-Semitism in addition to ordinary wartime requisitions. Babel, a Jew whose ethnic background wasn’t always known to his fellow communists, seems guilt-stricken by the actions of his Russian compatriots and fascinated by the life and culture of the persecuted. Most strikingly, Babel sees the war from the perspective of civilian women, many of whom were raped in these stories. This is not a war of leaders but of ordinary people. Remembering the way Gorky described Tolstoy’s genius for seeing the world through the eyes of the meek (even the eyes of its farm animals), Babel even has time for the sufferings of the cavalry’s horses.
Two of favorite Red Cavalry quotes:
“You don’t know what you love, Gedali. I’m going to shoot you, and then you will know, and I cannot NOT shoot, because I am the Revolution.”
“We were rattled by the same passions. Both of us looked upon the world as a meadow in May over which women and horses wander.”