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21 November 2018

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Red Cavalry

by Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk

Isaac Babel, translated by Boris Dralyuk (Pushkin Press, $18)

Pushkin Press continues to create books that are not only fine translations (spot comparisons find Dralyuk to be more fluent and truer to Babel’s voice than previous translations), but finely made books. This volume is compact and beautifully bound. It fits nicely in a coat pocket and I found myself carrying it around to savor while in waiting rooms or in coffee shops.

And there is much to savor here. For Babel was one of the finest writers of the Soviet era. Unfortunately, like Mandelstam, Bulgakov and far too many others, his vast talent was sent to an early grave by murderers who fashioned themselves as protectors of the common good.

Babel was a literary chameleon – able to vividly capture the voices and characters he met during the brutal years of the Polish-Soviet War (1919-21), where nations barely born were fighting over borders soon to be forgotten. The stories here are gory and profane, funny and disturbing, filled with the blood, anguish and up-close horrors of one of the last wars in Europe fought with sabers and horses. But there is also a taste of magical realism here. Roads die and villages bleed, the world itself seems to moan and suffer from the carnage wrought on its fertile soil.

No one is spared Babel’s goring and, more than anything, Red Cavalry is an indictment of the banality of armed conflict through the voices of commissars and idealists, revolutionaries and soldiers alike. It should be required reading in every high school, in every nation where people still think wars are worth fighting.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: Jan/Feb 2016