Isaac Babel: When a Jew Sits on a Horse
By Amos Goren | 03/03/2011
Here's the literary miracle that Gorky bet on: Thirty-nine short stories, sometimes just a page or a page-and-a-half long, each of which is a perfectly polished black diamond. Amos Goren marvels at the complete collected writings of Isaac Babel, now available in Hebrew translation.
Isaac Babel, Complete Works: Vol. 1 – Stories, Vol. 2 – plays, screenplays and stories from his estate, Vol. 3 – Essays, memories and speeches. From the Russian: Hamutal Bar-Yosef, Carmel Publishers, Jerusalem
Odessa, 1913. Lyovka Krik, a horseman in the Czar's army, a 22-year-old gangster who trails a curved sword behind him, comes home for a vacation. The matchmaker Arye-Leib is sitting in the dining room of the Krik house, trying to convince Lyovka to extend his vacation by one week in order to not miss the wedding of his sister, Dvoirah. Lyovka laughs. In his rough and thunderous voice, he says:
"An extra week? You're an idiot, Arye-Leib!... An extra week off? The cavalry isn't the infantry, you know! The cavalry spits on the infantry! If I'm even an hour late, the sergeant major will drag me off to his office, squeeze the juice out of my soul and nose, and then have me court-martialed. Cavalrymen are judged by three generals, three generals covered with medals from the Turkish war.
Arye-Leib: "Do they do this to everyone, or just Jews?"
Lyovka: "A Jew who climbs onto a horse stops being a Jew and becomes a Russian…"
(Unless otherwise noted, all translations are from The Complete Works of Isaac Babel, ed. Natalie Babel, trans. Peter Constantine, W.W. Norton and Company, New York).
This conversation opens the play, Sunset, in which Isaac Babel describes the violent changes of power in the family of the horse carter Mendel Krik, who controls the teamsters business in Odessa and casts a pall of fear over the entire city; or, essentially, almost the entire city, since his son Benya Krik – plotting with his younger brother Lyovka the horseman – is about to take over of his strict father's control of his business, family, and Odessa altogether. Benya, and not Lyovka, is the main character of the play, as well as of the "Odessa Stories," a collection of short stories written by Babel about his home town.
The "sunset" is the decline of Mendel Krik, the strongest man in Odessa even in his 60s. The only way to "convince" the teamster that the time has come to hand over the reins to the next generation is through violence, and a violent scene between Mendel and his two sons is the apex of the play, which in any case is very physical, very rough. Scattered throughout are also funny scenarios, such as the Friday night services at the Carting Union synagogue in Moldovanka, during which Benya and a thief named Senka plan a break-in to the textiles warehouse, and the cantor, Zwieback, shoots at rat a rat running around the altar with his pistol. But mainly, it's a sad play, a play about the rift between generations and eras. "The sky is flooded by a blood-red sunset," writes Babel, in the stage directions, describing the moment when the father and his two sons collide and spill one another's blood: it is a metaphor, but one that describes the state of a family, and is also a statement about the decline of old Odessa, which began with the outbreak of WWI in 1914, continued after the revolution, and reached its lowest point in the Second World War.
Destruction of the Old Concentrations of Power
Until the revolution, Odessa was Russia's largest port, the third-largest city in the kingdom of the Czar Nicolai the Second (after Moscow and St. Petersburg), and the largest Jewish center after Warsaw (which was also under the rule of Nicolai the Second). Most of the tradesmen in the city were Jews, and most of the stores were under Jewish ownership, but what best characterized Jewish Odessa was the fact that most of the grain export went through the Jews, who succeeded in breaking the monopolies of the Greek, Italian, and French businesses.
Odessa was open to the sea and to Balkan, Turkish, Mediterranean, French and other international influences. It was a sensuous city, intended for the worldly life, and whose comfortable climate made it open and optimistic. The king of the city was the famous Jewish gangster Mishka Yaponchik – this nickname (the equivalent of "Mike the Jap") derived from his Asian eyes; his real name was Michael Vinnitsky. Babel created Benya Krik based on an historical figure – a coldblooded dandy and military leader despite his young age, who never whipped out his gun if he didn't intend to use it.
In the story, "The King," Benya marries off his sister, Dvoira, who also appears in "Sunset" in a majestic wedding: "All that is noblest in our smuggled goods, everything for which the land is famed from end to end, did, on that starry, that deep-blue night, its entrancing and disruptive work. Wines not from these parts warmed stomachs, made legs faint sweetly, bemused brains, evoked belches that rang out sonorous as trumpets summoning to battle. The Negro cook from the Plutarch, that had put in three days before from Port Said, bore unseen through the customs fat-bellied jars of Jamaica rum, oily Madeira, cigars from the plantations of Pierpont Morgan, and oranges from the environs of Jerusalem. That is what the foaming surge of the Odessa sea bears to the shore… ."
(Isaac Babel, The Collected Stories, edited and translated by Walter Morison with an introduction by Lionel Trilling, World Publishing Co.1960, 207-208)
During the wedding, Benya tries, on the side, to get his people to burn down the police station a moment before the new chief of the Odessa police sends officers to raid the Krik family mews.
But the sinewy Odessa Jewry does not forget the heritage of its forefathers. The Kriks regularly attend the Carting Union (teamsters) synagogue. The Rabbi of Moldovanka, a down-to-earth neighborhood and the most lively in the city, is an esteemed guest in their home at times of crisis, and Benya, after seizing hold of the family business, wants only one thing: "To turn the Sabbath into Shabbat." In other words, he wants to be a man of influence, and to be considered fair.
But the ambition of Benya Krik – Mishka Yaponchik –is not fulfilled. The new Soviet government will be the end of him, together with the other able-bodied teamsters, with the grain trade, the Moldovanka neighborhood, and all of Old Odessa. The Cheka, the secret police that the Bolsheviks established after the revolution, mercilessly wipes out the old concentrations of power.
In the story "Froim Grach," Babel describes the end of one of these legendary teamsters, who tries to work through the Cheka using the accepted Odessa method in order to release one of his people from detention. He runs into a young Bolshevik commissar, sent from Moscow to set things right in the city; the latter is about to finish off the old man without much ado. One of the interrogators, an Odessa native named Borovoi, turns to his commander and explains to him that Grach is part of Odessa history, but the head of the Cheka, a mere twenty-three-year-old, does not want to be impressed, and impressing him is not even a possibility. The old man, with his strong build, who represents the group of Jewish tough-guys – men who can arrange anything in a city that the revolution has now placed in their hands, using the rod or sparing it, is not built for the vocabulary of revolutionary concepts. The head of the Cheka therefore turns to his older charge:
"Tell me one thing as a Chekist, as a revolutionary,” he said to him after a moment of silence. “What use would that man have been to the society we are building?”
“I don't know,” Borovoi said, staring motionlessly in front of him. “I suppose no use at all.”
He pulled himself together and chased away his memories. Then, livening up, he continued telling the Chekists who had come from Moscow about the life of Froim Grach, about his ingenuity, his elusiveness, his contempt for his fellow men, all the amazing tales that were now a thing of the past.
Writing for the "Red Horseman"
One year before the revolution, Isaac Babel, twenty-two years old, arrived from Odessa to Petrograd (later St. Petersburg). He lived with the Slonim family and met Maxim Gorky, the great Russian author, who immediately identified his talent and "sent him out among the people" so that he could accumulate life experience for his impending literary breakthrough. The young writer published articles in Gorky's newspaper, Novaya Zhizn, about the famine and the difficulties of life in Petrograd, until Lenin closed down the paper in the summer of 1918 due to its critical tone. In May 1920, Babel began working as a military correspondent for the cavalry of General Semyon Budyonny (the same Budyonny sung about with fervor in the Israeli youth movement until the end of the 1960s), covering the Polish-Soviet War raging in Volhynia in the Western Ukraine, in an area that was the heart of hearts of Pale of Settlement.
This cavalry force was a made of Cossacks, and the portly, bespectacled young Jew, who as a boy had studied Hebrew and was even a member in a Zionist youth movement, now adopted, for purposes of publishing in the military newspaper "The Red Horseman," a supremely Russian nom de plume, KirillVasilyevich Lyutov. Lyutov means cruel… and indeed, Babel needed to amass his strength, including the strength of suffering, in order to ride day and night on a horse in the company of Cossacks, some of whom were illiterate but were great experts regarding horses, robbery, rape and murder, to cross rivers with them in the dark of night, sleep with them in destroyed houses in the company of Jewish corpses (murdered by the Poles, the Red Cossacks and the Free Cossacks of Petliura and Yakovlev, who each continued with the pogroms initiated by their enemies), break bread with them from what they could scrape together in the embattled and famine-struck area. Babel learned to groom horses, and to act like a brute for the fun of it.
Zhitomer, Rovno, Dubnow, Kremenitz, Brody, Lwow, Belz, Zamoshtz, Kovel – these are the names of some of the bloody and demolished places that Babel passed through with the cavalry of Comrade Budyonny. Babel saw many injured and dying horses and people in Volhynia, trampled by the armies passing through to the East and West, again and again: many farmers and small-town Jews who had everything taken from them by force, many women raped repeatedly who did not succeed in recovering from depression, many units whose ranks were thinned due to the plethora of losses, many night journeys and stormy attacks and retreats. And here, in this painful arena, is where the literary miracle that Gorky bet on came to pass: thirty-nine short stories, in fact, very short, sometimes only a page or two in length, each of which is a perfectly polished black diamond. The bespectacled young man from the Moldovanka neighborhood writes one hundred and twenty-nine pages at the level of Gogol and Maupassant, one hundred and twenty-nine pages, every word of which will be read eagerly, with bated breath, as long as there is literature in this world.
Stringing words together with style
The first story in the new Hebrew translation, "Crossing into Poland," opens with the following paragraph:
"The commander of the Sixth Division reported that Novograd-Volynsk was taken at dawn today. The Staff is now withdrawing from Krapivno, and our cavalry transport stretches in a noisy rear guard along the high road that goes from Brest to Warsaw, a high road built on the bones of muzhiks by Czar Nicholas I.
"Fields of purple poppies are blossoming, a noon breeze is frolicking in the yellow rye, virginal buckwheat is standing on the horizon like the wall of a faraway monastery. Silent Volhynia is turning away, Volhynia is leaving, heading into the pearly white fog of the birch groves, creeping through the flowery hillocks, and with weakened arms entangling itself in the underbrush of hops. The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head, gentle light glimmers in the ravines among the clouds, the banners of the sunset are fluttering above our heads. The stench of yesterday's blood and slaughtered horses drips into the evening chill. The blackened Zbrucz roars and twists the foaming knots of its rapids. The bridges are destroyed, and we wade across the river. The majestic moon lies on the waters. The water comes up to the horses' backs, purling streams trickle between hundreds of horses' legs. Someone sinks, and loudly curses the Mother of God. The river is littered with the black squares of the carts and filled with humming, whistling and singing that thunders above the glistening hollows and the snaking moon."
These lines exemplify the natural confidence of the writer in stringing his words together, and the perfect ear that he peels towards the music of the sentence. Here are a few more examples of his word combinations: "wornout clothes teeming with life," "the milky moon" (also appears in Itzik Manger and Federico Garcia Lorca), "hunchbacked candle," "the horse's back crossed the sky," "the fading night enveloped him in a melancholy pink smoke," reality is "white like a impertinent thorn," "the pale steel glistened in the liquidy mucous of an autumn sun," "the typhoid peasants' army rolled past him with the fixed humped-backs of those destined to die," "the Sabbath, the young Sabbath, stole along the sunset, trampling the stars with the heel of her red shoe," and in the play, "Sunset": "His drab, dusty hair is plastered down on both sides of his head," "stars scattered in front of the window like urinating soldiers," "starched women glittered in the grass like enameled teapots." Even in the newspaper articles one finds special turns of phrase, even if with less abundance than in "The Red Cavalry"
The Idyllic Shtetl
When the first of the Red Cavalry stories appeared in print, they made a great commotion in the young Soviet Union. The critics immediately identified the new talent, but Comrade Budyonny was furious. Was this the way to describe the righteous war of the peace camp against the Polish Shlachta? The lack of order, lack of discipline, robbery, theft, rape and illiteracy – are these the characteristics of the liberating Red Army? From 1923-1924, it was still possible to conduct a public debate in the Soviet Union, and zealous Marxists chimed in to the critique of Budyonny, the Soviet hero.
Babel's situation grew complicated, until Gorky himself had to approach Stalin, the new ruler, and put and end to the matter.
Babel liked the revolution, the red flag and the new Russia. He felt at home in the open expanses and endless roads, mudcovered or snowy, and admired Cossacks, horses and arms (as such he recalls the people of HaShomer in Palestine), but at the same time, he loved his Jewish people and its ancient culture.
The shtetl was a central theme in Hebrew and Jewish literature of the period. At first, social-intellectual critiques were written about it, turning it into a symbol of the defects of Jewish life. Later, its image changed, and it was described in the idyllic light as an entire Jewish world that no longer existed. The authors Mendele Mocher Seforim and Shalom Aleichem created shtetels (Kavtziel and Kasrilivke, respectively) that represented the typical Jewish life in Eastern Europe: the market, the mikveh, the home, the street, and the shteibel. Mendele combined scathing social critique with a recognition of the uniqueness of the shtetl's positive values. Shalom Aleichem fashioned into it a nostalgic-existential style, and emphasized the naïveté, the economic backwardness, and the sense of decline due to urbanization and emigration to the west. The nostalgic trend, which also appears in the writings of Shalom Ash, Bialik (to a certain extent), S. Y. Agnon, and the Singer brothers (I.J. Singer and Isaac Bashevis Singer) grew inversely with the worsening situation of the shtetl. This trend is characteristic of the "re-discovery" of the shtetl by learned German Jews such as Martin Buber.
Babel's approach is distinct from all of these. He does not describe an environment, daily life and social processes, but rather, he photographs one tragic moment in which the shtetl is trampled under the feet of conquering armies. An entire culture lies dying before the eyes of the Jewish Cossack who arrived on horseback from the shore of the Black Sea:
"Outside the window horses neighed and Cossacks shouted. The wasteland of war yawned outside the window and Rabbi Motale Bratslavksy, clutching his tallith with his withered fingers, prayed at the eastern wall. Then the curtains of the cabinet fell open, and in the funerary shine of the candles we saw the Torah scrolls wrapped in coverings of purple velvet and blue silk, and above the Torah scrolls hovered above the humble, beautiful, lifeless face of Ilya, the rabbi's son, the last prince of the dynasty.
"Four months later, the Poles launched an offensive, and during the retreat, Babel again met the rabbi's son. The young man had been drafted into the Red Army, and now he was mortally wounded. Against orders, Babel pulls the "prince," as he calls him, towards the military train he's on at the time. Babel sifts through the personal possessions of the strange soldier, who is about to depart from the world:
"I threw everything together in a jumble, the mandates of a political agitator and the mementos of a Jewish poet. Portraits of Lenin and Maimonides lay side by side – the gnarled steel of Lenin's skull and the listless silk of the Maimonides portrait. A lock of woman's hair lay in a book of the resolutions of the Sixth Party Congress, and crooked lines of ancient Hebrew verse huddled in the margins of the Communist pamphlets. Pages of the Song of Songs and revolver cartridges."
In his dying moments, the son of the tsadik from Chernobyl tells Babel that at the time of their first meeting at the synagogue, he had already been a member of the Communist Party, but had been unable to leave his mother.
"What about now, Ilya?"
"My mother is just an episode of the Revolution," he whispered, his voice becoming fainter.
The story ends with a short paragraph:
"He died before we reached Rovno. He died, the last prince, amid poems, phylacteries, and foot bindings. We buried him at a desolate train station. And I, who can barely harness the storms of fantasy raging through my ancient body, I received my brother's last breath."
The Cavalry Stories, as well as other stories by Babel, including the play, "Sunset" were first introduced to the Israeli reader in 1963. Shlonski's virtuoso translation is brilliant, full of linguistic acrobatics embellished with Aramaic and many Russian terms in Hebrew transliteration. This renders it almost indecipherable to the contemporary reader. In 1987, the stories – and only the stories – appeared in an excellent translation by Nili Mirsky.
The Carmel Press did a fine deed in publishing a full critical edition of everything that Babel wrote, overflowing with material previous unknown to the Hebrew reader, with valuable commentary and introductions by Efraim Sicher and translator Hamutal Bar-Yosef. Screen plays, other plays, stories from his estate, drafts, newspaper articles, a diary, ideas he espoused, speeches he gave, and even a shocking letter that he wrote from prison to "the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs" (NKVD) to the despised Lavrenty Beria, before Babel was executed on January 27, 1940. The three volumes include texts never before published, which Babel scholar Efraim Sicher found in the KGB archive. The last words uttered by the great writer, when they ushered him into the police car of the NKVD, were, "They didn't let me finish."