‘Afonka Bida’ by Isaac Babel

Afonka Bida by Isaac Babel, 1926

The magic trick:

A startling shift in feelings from the reader regarding the titular character

One of the especially remarkable things about the stories in Red Cavalry is the way they function as a single unit. Characters, ideas, even images appear and reappear over the course of the story cycle.

Take Afonka Bida. Last we heard from him, he was raging about our narrator’s inability to pull the trigger in “Dolgushov’s Death.” The narrator can’t bring himself to mercy-shoot a dying soldier, forcing Afonka to handle the job.

So it’s fitting that we see Afonka in today’s feature beside himself with grief over the mortal injury of his horse, unable to put the horse out of its misery. The job is left to a fellow soldier.

Of course, the parallel is unmistakable and casts Afonka in a similar light to our narrator. He is humanized by his weakness, made sympathetic by his sentimentality for this animal.

These feelings don’t last long, though.

Afonka Bida is soon gone, turning his anguish into rage and rampage. The clash of feelings – from sympathy to incomprehension – created by the story is startling.

And that’s quite a trick on Babel’s part.

The selection:

“Farewell, Stepan,” he said in a wooden voice, and, taking a step away from the dying horse, bowed deeply to it. “How will I return to my quiet village without you? Who am I to throw your embroidered saddle on? Farewell, Stepan!” he repeated more loudly, then choked, squeaked like a mouse in a trap, and began wailing. His gurgling howls reached our ears, and we saw Afonka frantically bowing like a possessed woman in a church. “But you’ll see! I won’t give in to goddamn fate!” he yelled, lifting his hands from his ashen face. “You’ll see! From now on I’m going to hack those cursed Poles to pieces with no mercy at all! Right down to their gasping hearts, right down to their very last gasp, and the Mother of God’s blood! I swear this to you, Stepan, before my dear brothers back home!”

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