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Red Cavalary – the restrained telling of a brutal story

Posted by on November 27, 2012

I find that reading memoirs and historical non-fiction while I am writing my own 18th century story about the van Aken brothers helps me to analyse the ways in which different writing techniques have been used and how a writer creates their voice.

Red Cavalary by Isaac Babel[i], is a fictional story told in a series of vignettes of about 500 to 1,500 words.  They are clearly based on his 1920 diary written while he was seconded to the Cossack army on the Polish border as they furthered the Bolshevists cause by trying to export the Revolution to Eastern Europe.   “The orange sun is rolling across the sky like a severed head”, is the opening line of the book and sets the tone of the story.

‘A wail spreads over the village. The cavalry is trampling the grain and trading in horses’.[ii]

‘So there we were making mincemeat of the Poles at Belaya Tserkov.  So much so that the trees are rattling[iii]

‘I mourn for the bees.  They have been destroyed by warring armies’.[iv]  I saw the manmade landscape devoid of nature. I felt emptiness and despair.

The edition I read included Babel’s diary sparing the reader little of this brutal time but gives the opportunity to compare the fictional writing with the non-fiction journaling.

I found the directness of the language touched my senses keenly and reminded me to beware of sprinkling adjectives and adverbs too freely – Less is more.


[i] Edited by Nathalie Babel, Translated by Peter Constantine, Introduction by Michael Dirda, 2002 Pub, W W Norton & Company, London

[ii] Ibid., Page 49

[iii] Ibid., Page 102

[iv] Ibid., Page 73


One Response to Red Cavalary – the restrained telling of a brutal story

  1. Susie Gutch

    I was interested to read about the book Red Cavalry as I’ve just finished The Emperor’s Tomb by Joseph Roth . On a similar theme,it is a short work which deals with the Ist world war and the ending of the Austro-Hungarian empire -from the point of view of a young army officer, captured by the Russians.How does Roth encompass so much in such a slight volume? Amazing’ concision and deceptive simplicity’ as one critic described it. ‘His ‘lightness of touch has deceptive historical weight'[ TLS ] Definitely worth a read for anyone interested in that period, and as a fine example of economic but powerfully effective writing.S.G.

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