After The Battle by Isaac Babel, 1926
The magic trick:
Building the story around the conflict which fundamentally goes against any sense of accepted morality
We’ve reached the end of the week with our friends in the Red Cavalry.
It’s been a memorable reading experience, to say the least. But in terms of content? Exhausting. Demoralizing. Depressing. Terrifying.
“After The Battle” returns us to one of the collection’s main conflicts: the narrator’s refusal (inability?) to kill anyone. He’s there with the cavalry. He’s in battle every day. Yet he holds himself above it – or at least at some distance – refusing to participate in the basic brutality of killing.
That this is in fact the conflict of a story, or a human experience, is really all you need to know about the book. Up is down. Left is right.
It’s all seriously messed up.
He explains this illogical reality perfectly at the end of the story: “I was exhausted, and, crouching beneath the crown of death, walked on, begging fate for the simplest ability – the ability to kill a man.”
And that’s quite a trick on Babel’s part.
“Turn your own horse back,” Gulimov hissed, grabbed my shoulder with one hand, and tried unsheathing his saber with the other. The saber was jammed in its heath, and the Kirghiz shuddered and looked around. He held my shoulder tightly and brought his head closer and closer.
“Yours first,” he whispered almost inaudibly, “and mine will follow.” And he tapped me lightly on the chest with the blade of his saber, which he had managed to unsheathe.
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