Towering Babel


Isaac Babel’s short-story collection, Red Cavalry, was first published in 1926. The stories describe Babel’s experience of fighting with the Cossacks against the Poles in the Russo-Polish war (1919-20), one of the most violent conflicts of the early 20th century. Babel was in his mid-20s, Jewish, bald, bespectacled and far from being a born warrior. The Cossacks were viciously antisemitic, hated Poles almost as much as they hated Jews, and destroyed everything in their path.

Babel’s collection was instantly hailed as a classic but he was later shot in the Purges in 1940. In the 1950s and ’60s he was rediscovered by a new generation of Jewish-American critics and recognised as one of the century’s great writers.

After the fall of Soviet Communism, Babel’s war notebooks (1920 Diary) were discovered and it became clear that he had written not one, but two of the masterpieces of his time. These notebooks put Babel’s dilemmas as a Jew centre-stage.

Here was a Jewish Communist forced to lie to his fellow Jews about their likely fate under Soviet Communism and watch as the Cossacks he was fighting alongside destroyed Jewish villages, .

A new edition of Red Cavalry has been re-translated by Boris Dralyuk for Pushkin Press (£12). The 35 stories appear in the same sequence as in the Penguin Collected Stories (1994). And though Dralyuk provides 10 pages of useful notes, more would be helpful.

The key question is: does this translation add to our enjoyment? There are certainly some improvements. “Tavern” is clearer than “pothouse” and Dralyuk has sensibly chosen English terms (“peasant” not “muzhik”, “The 6th Division Commander” not “nachdiv 6” and so on). “Yids”, too, is sharper than “Jews” in some contexts.

Elsewhere, though, there are problems. “Pan clerk” is inferior to “Mr Writer”, as is “motley brush of rooster feathers” to “feather duster”. This latter indicates a tendency towards the flowery rather than the straightforward, as in the choice of “steed” instead of “horse”. “At a walk” rather than “Quick march”, and “a bright future of life” rather than “a radiant future”.

Importantly, however, Dralyuk does capture Babel’s unique voice — that mix of lyricism and violence that makes Red Cavalry an enduring masterpiece.

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