The Essential Fictions

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For a man who died aged only 45, Isaac Babel had a prodigious output. He was born in 1894 into a reasonably well-off Jewish family in the port of Odessa, currently part of Ukraine but then in Russia. As a young man he was prevented from entering university, as Tsarist Russia placed quotas on the numbers of Jewish students allowed to enrol. Nonetheless the young Babel showed himself to be adept with words and languages, coming to the attention of writer Maxim Gorky in 1915.

Babel’s attitude to the Russian Revolution of 1917 is unclear. According to one of his stories, he served on the Romanian front during the war. While he seems to have been sympathetic to the revolution, he was never a member of the Bolshevik Party.

During the Civil War he reported on the fighting in the area that is today made up of eastern Poland, Belarus and Ukraine. His pieces based on those experiences became the work Red Cavalry, which is included in this volume. Most of Babel’s better-known pieces are here among the 70 short stories.

The translations by Val Vinokur are a delight. Editions of Babel’s work in the original Russian were later censored and cut to fit with Stalinist orthodoxy. Here we get the stories as they were originally intended, whether on the struggles faced by Jewish people in the Odessa of Babel’s childhood or the horrors that he witnessed in the Russian-Polish war.

Some pieces are disturbing to a modern reader for the commonplace nature of the violence described in them, but at the same time there is an incredible sensitivity towards the people who are being written about, along with a fair sprinkling of humour and lewdness. As one Russian literary theorist put it, “Babel…speaks of the stars and the clap in the same voice.”

Throughout the 1920s Babel continued to write, successfully diversifying into plays and screenplays. He also produced more short stories, mostly reflecting on his early years, and those are included here too. However, as Stalinism began to make itself felt towards the end of the decade, he gradually fell out of favour.

In 1930 Babel witnessed the famine in Ukraine and spoke of his disillusionment with the regime. He dramatically reduced his output in protest, becoming, in his own words, “the master of a new literary genre, the genre of silence.”

By 1939 his stance, along with indiscretions in his personal life, meant that he had acquired some powerful enemies. He was arrested by the NKVD (secret police) and held for eight months while trumped-up charges were laid against him. These included spying for Austria and France, along with the inevitable accusation of “Trotskyism”. His trial lasted 20 minutes and he was shot the next day.

This collection of stories is a testament to the talent that was lost; they will be read and enjoyed long after those who persecuted him are forgotten.