Reviewing the recent translations of Isaac Babel’s work by Val Vinkour and Boris Drayluk, Gary Saul Morson explains the unique genius of the Soviet Jewish writer who was executed at Stalin’s orders in 1940 at the age of forty-five:
There could hardly have been a more grotesque pairing than a sensitive Jewish intellectual with a brutal Cossack regiment. For [the American critic Lionel] Trilling, this contrast constitutes the central theme of [Babel’s best-known cycle of stories], Red Cavalry, and it is certainly important. But something else is going on. The author approaches the world as an anthropologist, a disinterested spectator recording the odd customs of Cossacks, Jews, Poles, priests, ḥasidic rebbes, camp whores, and every sort of perpetrator or victim of extreme violence. Observing his own reactions as if they were someone else’s, or placing himself in dangerous situations in order to monitor his own emotions, he treats himself as just another specimen of the human condition. In his story “My First Goose,” he wonders at his own taste for violence and its intimate link with sexuality. He has to know everything. . . .
The narrator of Red Cavalry—the war correspondent Vasily Lyutov, a pseudonym Babel himself had used while among the Cossacks—observes everyone anthropologically, even his fellow Jews, as if they were a strange tribe. In the opening story, “Crossing the Zbruch,” he is quartered with a poor Jewish family consisting of a pregnant woman, a man with a covered head asleep against the wall, and two “scraggy necked Jews” who hop about “monkey-fashion.” As if he were disgusted by contact with Jews, Lyutov describes finding in the room assigned to him “turned-out wardrobes, . . . scraps of women’s fur coats on the floor, human excrement, and shards of the hidden dishware Jews use once a year—at Easter.” . . .
Red Cavalry draws on a diary Babel kept in which he expresses horror at the violence committed by Reds, Poles, and partisans alike. Everyone kills Jews, and he asks himself, “Can it be that ours is the century in which they perish?” Like Lyutov, the war correspondent in the stories, Babel clings to a belief in revolution as more than senseless killing, but encounters everywhere “the ineradicable cruelty of human beings.” Several stories are narrations by Bolshevik soldiers who nonchalantly describe their hideous, needless brutality as a fight against “treason” and “counterrevolution.”