Gabriele Annan

Isaac Babel was a middle-class Jew from Odessa who rode to war with a Cossack regiment. This extraordinary conjunction occurred during the Russo-Polish war of 1920. It is not news, because the single work that made Babel a famous writer – the short story collection Red Cavalry – is based on his experiences that summer, when he turned 26, at the First Cavalry Army HQ in a Volhynian village. The Red Cavalry stories are beautiful, brutal and shocking; but the shock of the unexpected in the Diary – the unlikelihood of such a man being in such a place at such a time – is even greater. Not just a Jew with the Cossacks, his traditional persecutors: but an astonishing writer coming into his own on the battlefield, finding a vision somewhere between surrealism and expressionism, and a new, abrupt and plangent voice to put it over. Besides, Babel witnessed the last battles ever to be fought on horseback and with sabres. Mounted nurses – ‘all whores, but comrades, whores because they’re comrades’ – rode with the Cossacks, while bombs dropped from American planes defending the newly created Polish republic. Their commander was called Major Cedric E. Fauntleroy. What could be more surreal than that?

In 1939 Babel was arrested by the secret police and his papers were confiscated. He died in prison the following year – there seems to be some doubt as to whether he was shot or succumbed to typhus. But the ruled cashbook in which he wrote his 1920 Diary had been left years before with a friend in Kiev. In 1954 it was given to Babel’s widow, and some of it was transcribed by a Hungarian scholar, although the Soviet authorities would not allow the full text to be copied. An extract from this extract appeared in the LRB five years ago. Now the full text has been published. The English version comes with a gripping introduction by the editor, Carol Avins, who produces exactly the information one needs to keep up with the diary entries as they hurtle past. The translation by H.T. Willetts reads like a translation. But the Diary is in note form, and the occasional jolt gives it an extra touch of authenticity, of having been dashed off on the hoof.

‘In Russia,’ Avins explains, ‘cavalry meant Cossacks.’ But like every other division, the First Cavalry had a political unit in tow. Its job was not just propaganda, but teaching the soldiers reading, writing and hygiene, and Babel began by sharing its special train (‘filthy’). There were Jews in the unit, and he despised them as a weedy lot. He himself was a correspondent of the army newspaper Red Cavalryman, Not much of what he wrote made it into the paper, owing to the chaotic conditions in an army always on the move. But he was given a tunic and boots and plenty of things to do: keeping records and interpreting military reports for Budyonny, Voroshilov and the other Cossack commanders; provisioning; interrogating prisoners and deserters; helping with ambulance work. On 12 July he was given a horse. He had never ridden before. By August he was spending five consecutive days in the saddle. ‘Night in Niwice again,’ he wrote on the 18th, ‘sleep on straw, anywhere, because I can’t think any more, my clothes are in shreds, my body aches, ONE HUNDRED VERSTS on horseback.’

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