Translated from the Chinese by Dave Haysom

I can’t speak for the English version, but I find the distinctive qualities of Isaac Babel’s Red Cavalry – the seemingly plain surface, and the remarkable richness it belies – viscerally present when I read Dai Cong’s Chinese translation.

Cover of Isaac Babel's Red Cavalry
Based on Babel’s experience as a reporter with the cavalry division during the Polish-Soviet war, some of the stories in Red Cavalry are just a few hundred words in length – so short that they dare you not to call them stories at all, that those Russian names, jutting out from the paragraph like the skewer from a grilled sausage, seem too long for the text to sustain.

But it is not brevity alone that distinguishes Babel’s stories from the bulk of Russian literature: he has a unique understanding of the short story form, and the lush language he employs is completely inimitable. Babel upholds the tradition of Chekhov and Maupassant and perhaps even surpasses them: his narratives incorporate moments of epiphany, but then push past them in order to probe their aftermath. You will find no sense of morality, either personal or general, in Red Cavalry. Only force: a force far more penetrative than the bogus machismo of a Hemingway.

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