Arnon Grunberg
Words Without Borders

Over Money and a Heart

There are authors who are well known in certain circles, but simply not well known enough. They deserve a bigger audience: let’s say ten percent of Dan Brown’s audience. I think of the Russian author Isaak Babel.
Born in 1894 in Odessa and killed in 1940 by Stalin's regime, his oeuvre is slim and consists mainly of short stories. Sometimes Babel's short stories are called short shorts. He didn’t like to use too many words. But to believe that he is a minimalist would be as awkward as to argue that Cervantes is an author of children’s books.
He also wrote screenplays and plays. W.W. Norton published his complete works in 2001, which I recommend buying even if you have only time to read Babel’s first short short in the book.
Grace Paley writes that Babel’s Red Cavalry (an important collection of his short stories, based on his experience as war correspondent during the campaign in 1920 against Poland) is “about men and what they expect of one another in the way of honor, physical courage, love of horses, abuse of women, and Jews.” Well, women, Jews, honor, physical courage and men are importants words in Babel’s work, but this is not a very fair summary of Red Cavalry. Yes, there is in all of Babel’s work a fascination with cruelty and violence. But this violence cannot be compared to the violence that a Martin McDonagh offers, or for that matter, a Quentin Tarantino.
There is no such a thing as evil in Babel’s work, and that’s only one of the miracles of it. Human cruelty is observed and described as if it were a hurricane--unavoidable, and to a certain degree, incomprehensible.
In a quote from the short short "At Grandmother’s," the grandmother says to the narrator, who might or might not be Babel, “You must know everything. Everyone will fall on their knees before you and bow to you. Let them envy you. Don’t believe in people. Don’t have friends. Don’t give them your money. Don’t give them your heart.” Over money and a heart, I prefer Babel’s stories.