A classic series of wartime sketches in a translation that emphasizes their lyricism and dark comedy.
Babel (1894-1940) first published this collection in 1926, after serving as a journalist in the Russian army during the Polish-Soviet War of 1920. It is an unvarnished vision of the ugliness of war, and his anti-propagandistic candor as a writer would ultimately lead to his death in Stalin’s purges. If literary immortality is small consolation, there’s no denying these stories’ enduring power. The first story, “Crossing the Zbrucz,” features its soldier narrator looking for a moment’s rest in a house before realizing the man sleeping beside him is dead, “[h]is gullet…ripped out, his face…hacked in two.” “Salt,” one of the collection’s most emotionally brutalizing tales, is styled as a letter to the editor from a Cossack soldier, boastfully recalling how he cruelly dealt with a woman who pleaded for safety on their train by pretending the bag of salt in her arms was a baby; in little more than five pages Babel manages nuanced symbolism, a voice of callous inhumanity, and a grotesque vision of herd mentality. Translator Dralyuk writes in the foreword about his interest in emphasizing Babel’s poetic style, which emerges clearly in “My First Goose,” about a soldier effortfully trying to put Lenin’s words into a shallow act of violence, observing how “my heart, crimson with murder, creaked and bled.” Though the stories are brief and deliver a clear message about the frustrations of battle, Babel’s rhetoric is never plainly parable- or fablelike; he uses a blunt realism to sketch out scenes that can have a variety of resonances. Writing about war has changed with the times, but war hasn’t, and these stories from nearly a century ago remain grimly current.
Short but emotionally deep studies of life during wartime.