Salt by Isaac Babel, 1926
The magic trick:
A casual, almost cavalier, brutality
The stories in Red Cavalry thrive on their brutality. Not that Babel ever revels in it. Nothing like that. But the stories soar as literature often on their plainly painted scenes of brutality.
“Salt” might be the best example. To say it’s unflinching is putting it mildly. The normalcy it creates is based on the assumption that the soldiers, left to their own devices, will rape any nearby women. And while the reader is wrapping their mind around that, we soon see that death is an easy consequence for just about anything at all.
The story is casual to the point of being cavalier with its brutality.
And that’s quite a trick on Babel’s part.
“By the way, woman,” I tell her, “whichever way the platoon decides will be your fate.” And, turning to the platoon, I tell them that here we have a woman who is requesting to travel to her husband at an appointed place and that she does, in fact, have a child with her, so what will your decision be? Let her in or not?
“Let her in,” the boys yell. “Once we’re done with her, she won’t be wanting that husband of hers no more!”
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Agree – this is one heck of a short story! I really like reading Red Cavalry as a cycle – I think the juxtaposition you get between a story like this and, say, Gedali, tells almost as much as the stories themselves. The constant aesthetic and thematic changes seem to question but not necessarily answer, hoping that from the questioning a truth might emerge – the goal of the short story really