Who? Isaac Babel, Russian journalist and super-Jew who was later tortured and murdered by Stalin’s goons.
What? Thirty-five short-short stories about the exploits of the Soviet First Cavalry Army in their failed 1920s fuckover of Poland.
When? 1926, after the Bolshevik Revolution and brutal Red Terror, before Stalin’s Purges.
How? Concise, direct vignettes with enough casual violence to make Irvine Welsh say: ‘Oo – that is gory. And true.’
Why? I first read Babel’s short story ‘Salt’ in The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories and thought ‘yawn‘. Compared with the daring of Bulgakov, the colloquial charm of Zoshchenko and (closest to my heart) the sheer linguistic ambition of Platonov, Babel’s journalistic, war’s-hell-laden plainspeak bored me to the tits. But in many ways, Babel surpasses his contemporaries. His sense of the realities of war is laid out in mostly terse, certainly distanced images which still resound with more humanity (however shellshocked) than Bulgakov’s. His characterisation is equally resonant; the various vaguely-recognisable archetypes that recur throughout the collection, and the conflicts that define them, are as authentic as any voice in Zoshchenko’s stories. Still, the major surprise in Babel’s prose comes from the bafflingly-poetic idiosyncrasies he chooses to include even in spite of his otherwise concrete style. These inflections of personality approach what Platonov envisaged when loading his imagery with multiple mirrors and perspectives. These are chinks of light in a chiaroscuro painting otherwise overloaded with shadow.
8 December 2016