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The Tower of (Isaac) Babel

The Tower of (Isaac) Babel

Monday, July 13, 2015

by Alice E.M. Underwood

Born on July 13 in 1894, Isaac Babel has earned many an accolade for his achievements in Soviet letters. 

But not at first. Maxim Gorky said of him that he “would not get anywhere with literature… he wrote amazingly badly.”

And General Budyonny of the Red Cavalry coined the word “Babism” to condemn Babel’s distaste for violence and his sympathy for the Jews – features that made him womanly and anti-Soviet, according to Budyonny (a bosom pal of Stalin, by the way).

But was he really as bad as all that? When writers were being arrested left and right during the Great Purge of the 1930s, Babel refused to emigrate: he was “unable to imagine himself as anything but a writer,” he said. So there must have been something to his work.

What Gorky saw in 1916 as choppy and un-poetic, and Budyonny later lambasted as ladylike, are the features that have won Babel a place in Russian hearts and Slavic Department libraries across the globe. The violence he does to language, and his refusal to shy away from violent themes, have made his work disconcerting at best, and “Babist” at worst.

For example, his similes:

  • “The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head.”
  • “The wind hopped through the branches like a crazed rabbit.”
  • “The Apostles…[had] warts on their double chins like radishes in May.”
  • “Green rockets…came showering down like roses beneath the moon.”

Eerie, yet with a dash of lyricism. And it may be grounded in pre-revolutionary and early Soviet years, but Babel’s themes of war, anti-Semitism, and unmotivated violence are far from alien to today’s world, in Russia or elsewhere.

Specifically, Babel was a Jew by heritage, and, whether in the Russo-Japanese War, protests against the Tsar, or the Bolshevik Revolution itself, his early years were marked by many an excuse for pogroms against the Russian Empire’s Jews. Which was far from fun from Little Boy Babel, who escaped with his life but not without a bath of bird intestines. Yes, really.

With the pigeon offal cleaned off in time for the Civil War of 1918-1921, Babel had the stroke of luck to work as a war correspondent with General Semyon Budyonny’s Cavalry (the fodder for his collection Red Cavalry, or Konarmiia). An even bigger stroke of luck: changing his name to the Russian-sounding Kirill Lyutov.

Yet even de-Jewified in name, the short, bespectacled man of letters soon discovered in his time among the soldiers that the pen was definitely not mightier than the sword. As narrated in “My First Goose,” he only avoids getting bullied or even killed by the other soldiers in his regiment by slaughtering a goose and forcing a local lady to cook it for him. Yes, there’s a lot of violence against birds in Babel.

Only the violence among humans manages to put the avian carnage in perspective. And in a narrative about a war between Bolshevik and Polish armies, it is the Jews on either side who often face the worst brutalities.

Babel couldn’t explicitly speak out against this, fearing recriminations from the Bolsheviks. Yet a subtle sympathy may be found in the way he depicts the destruction of entire villages and the suffering of the Jews he encounters, in contrast to the careless violence of the Bolsheviks (“Let’s go die for a pickle and World Revolution!” one cries).

Babel’s work may not be an all-out attack on anti-Semitism, but his illustration of anti-Jewish violence (often spurred by unrelated social unrest) shows what has changed in today’s world – and that much has not.

It may be different in form, but the Jewish scapegoating in today’s Russia isn’t a far cry from that in Babel’s stories (bird guts aside). Even today, certain nationalist groups and social conservatives hint that Jewish opposition leaders have spawned the nation’s economic and social problems; others, more weirdly, have sneakily spurred on anti-Semitism in Ukraine to worsen morale during the current fighting. However the issue crops up, anti-Semitism continues to be a favorite tool for Russian nationalists. And in that it resembles Babel’s world of a century ago.

Babel’s sympathetic, yet often morally ambiguous depiction of war and anti-Semitism gives a lens for viewing today’s problems that seems at once to condemn such violence and to contribute to it. Babel was able to see beauty even in horror, and his inventiveness can as easily be whimsical (“the moon was green as a lizard”) as it can be frightening (“a nose like a flag above a corpse”). And it is that ambiguity that keeps his writing fresh today.

So as the sun sets on Babel’s 121st birthday, let’s hope it resembles something other than a severed head. Or at least, find the poetry in that simile, even if it induces a shudder.