Isaak Babel, writer and revolutionary (1894–1940)

Isaak Babel

Jorge Luis Borges
El Hogar [Home]
December 1938
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He was born in the jumbled catacombs of the stair-stepped port of Odessa, late in 1894. Irreparably Semitic, Isaak was the son of a rag merchant from Kiev and a Moldavian Jewess. Catastrophe has been the normal climate of his life. In the uneasy intervals between pogroms he learned not only to read and write but to appreciate literature and enjoy the work of Maupassant, Flaubert, and Rabelais. In 1914, he was certified a lawyer by the Faculty of Law in Saratov; in 1916, he risked a journey to Petrograd. In that capital city “traitors, malcontents, whiners, and Jews” were banned: the category was somewhat arbitrary, but — implacably — it included Babel. He had to rely on the friendship of a waiter who took him home and hid him, on a Lithuanian accent acquired in Sevastopol, and on an apocryphal passport.

His first writings date from that period: two or three satires of the Czarist bureaucracy, published in Annals, [Maksim] Gorky’s famous newspaper. (What must he think, and not say, about Soviet Russia, that indecipherable labyrinth of state offices?). Those two or three satires attracted the dangerous attention of the government. He was accused of pornography and incitement of class hatred. From this catastrophe he was saved by another catastrophe: the Russian Revolution.

In early 1921, Babel joined a Cossack regiment. Those blustering and useless warriors (no one in the history of the universe has been defeated more often than the Cossacks) were, of course, anti-Semitic. The mere idea of a Jew on horseback struck them as laughable, and the fact that Babel was a good horseman only added to their disdain and spite. A couple of well-timed and flashy exploits enabled Babel to make them leave him in peace. By reputation, though not according to the bibliographies, Isaak Babel is still a homo unius libri.

His unmatched book is titled Red Cavalry.

The music of its style contrasts with the almost ineffable brutality of certain scenes.

One of the stories — “Salt” — enjoys a glory seemingly reserved for poems, and rarely attained by prose: many people know it by heart.

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Isaak Babel was Leon Trotsky’s favorite Soviet author. He was purged by Stalin in the late 1930s. To  download a PDF of his complete works, click here.

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