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?
LRB 7 September 1995 | PDF Download