Thursday, January 25, 2007

Writing about War - Isaac Babel

A friend of mine asked me to recommend him a good work of Russian literature. While there's no shortage of such works, I am thinking of telling him to read some Isaac Babel.

He was a complicated man, I can't say I admire him as a person, but as a writer...

Here is an excerpt from one his his masterpieces, Red Cavalry. This book is based on his travels embedded as a reporter with the Soviet First Cavalry Army. The translation is my own:

Late night we arrive in Novograd. I find a pregnant woman in the apartment that was assigned to me and two red haired Jews with thin necks; the third is asleep, covering his head and rolled up to the wall. I find rifled armoires in the room assigned to me, scraps of women's winter coats on the floor, human feces and shards of sacramental dishes, used by Jews once a year - on Passover.

- Clean this up - I say to the woman. - How filthily you people live...

The two Jews get up. They are jumping around on felt soles and picking up the broken pieces from the floor. They are jumping around silently, monkey-like, like the Japanese in the circus, their necks swell up and turn side to side. They put a ripped feather-bed down on the floor and I lie down by the wall, next to the third, sleeping Jew. Frightened poverty closes in over my bed.

Everything is killed by silence, and only the moon, grabbing with blue hands its round, shiny, carefree head, is tramping outside the window.

I stretch my stiff legs, I am lying on the ripped up feather-bed and I fall asleep. The division commander of the Sixth is in my dream. On a heavy colt, he is chasing the brigade commander and puts two bullets into his eyes. The bullets pierce the head of the brigade commander and both his eyes fall on the ground. "Why did you turn the brigade around?" - yells Savitsky, the division commander to the wounded man - and here I wake up, because the pregnant woman is feeling around my face with her fingers.

- Pane1, - she says to me, - you are screaming in your sleep and you are tossing around. I will make your bed in the other corner, because you are pushing my daddy...

She lifts her skinny legs off the floor, and her round belly, and takes the blanket off the sleeping man. The dead old man is lying there, on his back. His throat is ripped out,
the face chopped in half, blue blood on his beard like a piece of lead.

- Pane, - says the Jewess and fluffs the featherbed, - the Poles were slaughtering him and he was praying to them: kill me in the backyard, so my daughter doesn't see how I die. But they did things how they wanted, - he passed away in this room and was thinking about me... And now I want to know, - said the woman suddenly with a terrible force, - I want to know, where else on this whole Earth will you find such a father as my father...

1 Pane - (Polish and Ukrainian) Sir


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