Friday, September 26, 2008

Recording the revolution (Books - Red Cavalry by Isaac Babel)

For some reason, I have been starting and finishing book after book while ignoring Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry, which I had begun early this summer after Sasa Stanisic mentioned it as an influence at his NYC reading of his novel How the Soldier Repairs the Gramophone. Last night after several hours of studying and an episode of Rome, it seemed like just the thing.

The burned-out town - broken columns and the hooks of evil old women's fingers dug into the earth - seemed to me raised into the air, comfortable and unreal like a dream. The naked shine of the moon poured over the town with unquenchable strength. The damp mold of the ruins blossomed like a marble bench on the opera stage. And I waited with anxious soul for Romeo to descend from the clouds, a satin Romeo singing of love, while backstage a dejected electrician waits with his fingers on the button to turn off the moon.

Blue roads flowed past me like rivulets of milk trickling from many breasts. On my way back, I had been dreading running into Sidorov, with whom I shared my room,, and who at night brought his hairy paw of dejection down upon me. That night, luckily, harrowed by the milk of the moon, Sidorov did not say a single word to me. I found him writing, surrounded by books. On the table a hunchbacked candle was smoking - the sinister bonfire of dreamers...

Babel's collected stories of life in Russia during the period immediately following the Bolshevik coup in 1917, were published in magazines in the 1920s. This period of intense disarray and bloodshed is depicted in such richly imagined and dramatic prose that the horror of its events are made readable by their sheer beauty and sometimes their hilarity. In this vignette, Italian Sun, the writer's roommate, wounded and no longer able to fight for one of the many factions vying for power, writes his girlfriend about his insane plans to murder the royal family of Italy.

Save me, Victoria! governmental wisdom is driving me insane, boredom is inebriating me. If you won't help me I will die like a dog without a five-year plan! And who wants a worker to die unplanned? Surely not you, Victoria, my bride who will never be my wife...

What is impartial journalism? People only cry for journlism to be impartial when it doesn't reconfirm their ideology. Otherwise the complaint is never heard. This is political writing I can eat in big mouthfuls, and give me a chunk of bread so I can mop up the gravy. His colorful, dreamlike palette reminds me of Chagall sometimes, but without the childlike wonder. I find his powers of observation sharper than that, his humor could shave a Cossak's beard.

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