Many weighty tomes have been written about early 20th-century Eastern Europe — its wars, revolutions, ethnic conflicts — but Isaac Babel catalogs these inexhaustible histories in a few short pages. His compact stories, which capture the essence of a vast array of characters and settings, always give me vertigo. We see a similar vertigo effect take hold of Isaac Babel’s grandson, Andrei Malaev-Babel, in David Novack’s documentary Finding Babel. The film chronicles Malaev-Babel’s search for traces of his grandfather’s life, from his upbringing in Odessa, to his stint with the Cossacks during the Polish-Soviet War, to his murder at the hands of Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. Malaev-Babel rarely finds an artifact directly connected to Babel’s life; instead, he comes across monuments that mark the tragedies and political turnovers of Eastern Europe — a holocaust memorial in Ukraine, his grandfather’s Odessa apartment turned into a lavish pad for a city official, an NKVD headquarters converted into a Russian Orthodox monastery. It’s enough to make anyone dizzy, but we get the feeling that Babel would have relished the opportunity to tell the tales of the people who created and inhabited these places.
Babel delighted in the complexity of an extreme world. In his prose, no one person or idea gets the limelight, and everyone must fight for a spot on the page. What are we to make of the dense chaos contained in each of his stories? The chaos certainly doesn’t rob the stories of their realism; in fact, it makes them hyper-real, and very relevant to our current reality. Nothing is discriminated against; each part of his world is granted equal importance, and each character is swept up in the same whirlwind. That’s why there is no person as the central focus! There are only layers of place, religion, history, and emotions. With the recent translations of Babel’s Red Cavalry and Odessa Stories, released by Pushkin Press, we are able to revisit the chaos Babel wrote of and lived through. These stories guide us through our modern predicaments, the petty fights that make up our day-to-day lives, as the scythe of history swings above our heads.
Babel reminds us that it is people—our neighbors, friends, associates—that make up the chaos, violence, and revolution of history. In the story Pan Apolek, our narrator, Lyutov, looks upon church-art by the drunk and scandal-plagued Pan Apolek, in whose paintings he sees “Janek, the lame convert, in the apostle Paul, and in Mary Magdalene— the Jewish girl Elka, the daughter of unknown parents and mother of many a stray.” Apolek’s inclusion of local people in his art is to be lauded, for Paul was Saul before he became an apostle, and Mary Magdalene, at least in the popular imagination, had once been a prostitute. Christian charity has done nothing for Janek or Elka, while we find “truth in the paintings of Pan Apolek, who flatters our pride.” Apoleck makes a radical argument that an artist’s challenge is to find the person under the ideologies.
Pan Apolek makes Babel ostensibly sound like a socialist realist, but there is a flip-side to Babel’s realism. It is not only the great unwashed who are elevated in his stories, but also the mean and nasty. In a tale of Anti-Semitism, Story of My Dovecote, a young Babel encounters the legless cripple Makarenko and his wife Katyusha, who takes the dove Babel has just bought at the market and crushes it on Babel’s skull. She exclaims, “gotta stamp out their seed… and their stinking men.” Despite Babel’s upper-middle class upbringing, there is a precariousness that can never be escaped due to his Jewishness. Bable writes, as the “dove’s tender guts spilled down my forehead… I shut my only unplastered eye, so that I wouldn’t have to see the world laid before me. This world was small and terrible.” An irony throughout Babel’s work is that even though he personally traveled far and wide, he conveys that largeness through claustrophobia. He stays put, and only protects himself in an attempt to shut out the world.
It’s a small world in Odessa Stories, both on the streets and in the minds of the gangsters that roam them. The substance of Babel’s Odessa are strong-armed failures to squash what will always be an emotionally volatile life. We hear about the gangster Benya Krik’s rise to power in How It Was Done in Odessa from a rabbi who asks, “What would you do in Benya Krik’s shoes? Ah, you wouldn’t do a thing. But he did. And that’s why he’s the king, and you—you just thumb your nose behind people’s backs.” Babel could have made these stories pure-fantasy, tough Jews who seek justice in a world that affords them none. For Babel, however, it is impossible to stray far from the insecurities that make up life, to forget for a while “that you’ve got glasses on your nose and autumn in your heart.” These sentimental espousals do not sound like realism to me but they are also not romantic. Young Babel’s heart goes hand-in-hand with Benya Krik leveraging control over Odessa. When we are treated to the familial heart break in Benya Krik’s family in the story Sunset, we learn that even the strong willed are incapable of controlling their surroundings. Benya Krik’s father Mendel Krik oppresses his family, and Benya plots to kill him. Benya and his brother’s rebellion against their father fails until his sister, Dvoyra, saves the day. “ ‘For Lyovka,’ ” she says, “ ‘for Benchick, for me, Dvoyra, and for all the people,’ and dented her papa’s head with the colander.” Benya may be known as Benya the king, but we also know him as Benya the failed patricide. He, too, will always be filled with autumn in his heart.
The jumps between Babel’s small characters and the panorama of history create a controlled disorder in which you almost cannot keep the story straight. “That is the point! This is what history looks like” Babel screams at us across time as writes The End of the Almshouse. Here we enter a tale of revolution in the midst of the Stalin-made Ukraine Famine. The almshouse hangs onto life by reusing one oak box for all the dead bodies, until a Russian commander is killed and they must bury him along with the coffin. When the elderly rebel they exclaim, “Our goal is to live out our lives, not to suffer through them.” Babel never loses focus on the individuals who come together to create history, and as with most revolutions all they want is bread and roses. When a local joins in on the fun by firing his gun he cries, “We’ve crushed the Tsars,” and invokes the revolutionary spirit against Soviet Russia. The irony is not a “new boss same as the old boss,” but one where the shooter calls upon revolutionary spirit as a response to the oppression of the new Soviet regime.
From a Soviet soldier who takes away the almshouse occupants’ livelihood to the almshouse being closed down, and the old folks being marched by “dashing Red Army men” on an “inexpressibly sad Odessan road that had once led from the city to the cemetery,” Babel has no time for systems that cause the weak to suffer. A writer who wishes his old city was freed from the grip of the Soviets. Babel illustrates how all stories unfold into much larger ones. At the end of the documentary, Finding Babel, Andrei Malaev-Babel tries to go to the dacha where his grandfather was arrested but is denied entry. The dacha is now part of a heavily-policed gated community that does not allow entrance to outsiders. Andrei cannot believe the men he met at the gate, brutes, with such disregard for human decency. Andrei is crushed, but his grandfather would have loved the scene for all its cruelty. Babel’s spector reminds us of his morally compromised world filled with promise. Like the young man in the graveyard who leads a communist rebellion against the Soviets, the path against oppression is fraught with risks and contradictions. Babel would delight in the private security guard being run over by the masses, the gates being torn down, even if those masses then turned out to be a NKVD by another name.
Babel, who was embedded with the Cossacks during the Polish-Soviet, war does not shy away from the tension of his autumnal heart and the malicious soldiers. He will also not paper over what he sees for the sake of political propaganda. His goal is to cram all he has borne witness to into his writing, and what turns up is a hyper-reality. In The Life Story of Pavlichenko, Matvei Rodionych, General Pavlichenko says, “When the Time comes, I stomp the enemy for an hour or more than an hour. I want to get to know life, what life’s all about.” In the comic story My First Goose, Lyutov meets the commanding officer, who yells, “You’re one of those pansies!.... And with glasses on your nose. What a little louse!” Lyutov finds and slaughters a goose to the appreciation of a Cossack who states, “Our kind of lad.” This violence is counterbalanced when Lyutov is also asked to orate the newspaper he has carried with him. “ ‘In the newspaper Lenin writes…’ I said, pulling out Pravda. ‘Lenin writes we have a shortage of everything.’ And loudly, like a deaf man triumphant, I read Lenin’s speech to the Cossacks.”
Babel’s world view allows insights into the cyclone of history. When Lyutov ties himself to a horse, falls asleep, gets dragged to the frontlines of the battle, and is saved by a peasant, they look upon the terror of war. The peasant prophecies, “’Jews guilty in everyone’s eyes… yourn and ourn. There’ll be mighty few of ‘em left after the war.’” An ill-omen that neither Babel, the peasant, nor Lyutov could fully understand at the time. However, Babel understood that not much stood in the way of something like the Holocaust from happening. He had already seen enforced starvation and malicious torture done. His inclusion of the worst and the best of humanity is why Babel escapes our attempts to capture him. His text bore witness to a world that has already been turned upside down.
What better time to read Babel then in a time ruled by extreme forces out of our control. When Babel is patient with the Cossacks, or moves among different groups that hate him, he guides us through our own challenges. His transcriptions of traumatic moments illustrate how as a hyper-realist he saw how much history, emotion, and chance go into a single moment. He is a reminder that every grand narrative is filled with human stories about people who have desires and needs. Marx once said the goal is to change the world. Babel would say the goal of writers is to write everything down and follow the changes no matter where they might lead.