Along with other secrets about spies and agents and assassinations and conspiracies, the archives of the former Soviet Union may contain a literary secret: an unpublished novel by the Russian writer Isaac Babel.
Babel, the author of the Red Cavalry stories and Odessa Tales, was arrested in 1939 and executed in the basement of the Lubyanka Prison in Moscow in 1940. If the novel is ever found, it would be an extraordinary resurrection from the literary graveyard.
Not that the manuscript definitely exists. It could have been destroyed by the Stalinist secret police, who arrested Babel early on a May morning in 1939 at his dacha outside Moscow. But records of Babel's case that have emerged from the archives so far show that the arresting agents seized 24 folders of manuscripts, none of which have been publicly seen in the 62 intervening years.
If the novel does exist, and if it ever does come to light, the discovery would have more than literary significance. At least one scholar and one wealthy collector of literary memorabilia are trying to persuade the Russian authorities to look for it.
"He was a man taken by the Russian Revolution from the smallness of the Jewish world near Odessa, where he was born, and given a global stage, which he exploited to become one of the most famous literary celebrities of his era," said Jonathan Brent, editorial director of Yale University Press, who is researching a biography of Babel. "And then, for reasons that are still murky, the revolution that promised to liberate him destroyed him, as it did so many others."
Though Babel is well known to scholars, he is not widely read in this country, not as much as other Russian writers such as Boris Pasternak, and perhaps not even as much as Osip Mandelstam, another victim of Stalinist terror. But he may be due for a resurgence of interest. A new translation of his works is scheduled to be published by W.W. Norton this fall. A recent colloquium on him at the 92nd Street Y, with Babel's daughter Nathalie among the speakers, was sold out. A full-length biography of Babel has not yet been written, but two are in the works, Brent's and another by Patricia Blake, a scholar of Russian literature.
Babel left behind a relatively small but brilliant body of work, short stories of an amazingly sinuous and economical style that the novelist and critic Cynthia Ozick has called "burnished brevity." The style is one in which the randomly observed objects of the world _ a broken chair, a stone on the ground, an impetuous ray of sun _ give substance to a darkly erotic and absurdist psychological realism, as a sinister violence lurks nearby. Sometimes it is only in a line that Babel whispers of impending doom, but it is as though he always knew it was coming.
"My mother was pale, she was experiencing destiny through my eyes," the narrator of the story My Dovecote says, giving one illustration of Babel's troubling prescience. The narrator is a Jewish boy whose exam results have won him admission to secondary school, a rare achievement for the quota-afflicted Jews and an event that is being celebrated by everybody else in his family. "She looked at me with bitter compassion as one might look at a little cripple boy, because she alone knew what a family ours was for misfortunes."
My Dovecote, published in 1925, contains further illustrations of Babel's vision. The story opens with the boy narrator's success in the exams, and it closes in a pogrom that annihilates his dreams. The thought does occur to the reader that the boy is Babel himself, who did, as an 11-year-old, experience the Russian pogroms of 1905.
In My Dovecote, the boy goes to buy pigeons for a dovecote built for him by his grandfather, but he is knocked to the ground by a leprous beggar, who represents the ugly force of Russian hatred of the Jews. What follows is a luminescent phantasm, a vision of hell seen by a little Russian Jew lying on the ground at the beginning of the terrible 20th century with pigeon blood flowing over his eyes:
This world was tiny and it was awful. A stone lay just before my eyes, a little stone so chipped as to resemble the face of an old woman with a large jaw. A piece of string lay not far away, and a bunch of feathers that still breathed. This trampled earth in no way resembled real life, waiting for exams in real life. Somewhere far away Woe rode across it on a great steed, but the noise of the hoofbeats grew weaker and died away, and silence, the bitter silence that sometimes overwhelms children in their sorrow, suddenly deleted the boundary between my body and the earth that was moving nowhither. The earth smelled of raw depths, of the tomb, of flowers. I smelled its smell and started crying, unafraid.
He was a Jew and, therefore, as he put it once, "a man with spectacles on his nose and autumn in his heart." Yet, though he spoke Yiddish and Hebrew, he spent a year concealing his identity and riding with the Cossacks, the inveterate enemies of the Jews. It was out of that experience that he wrote both his 1920 diary and the Red Cavalry stories that made him famous.
Some of the mysteries of Babel's life, especially the end, have been clarified with the demise of the Soviet Union and the opening of the KGB archives. Now his dossier has come to light, showing that under torture he denounced some of his literary counterparts and then _ just before he was executed, almost immediately after his sentence was pronounced _ he declared that he took it all back. "I slandered myself and others under duress," he told the tribunal at his trial.
Among Babel's other final remarks was one to his wife, Antonina Pirozhkova, as he was being led away by the secret police. "They didn't let me finish," he said. Those words, reported in a memoir of Babel by Pirozhkova, and the trove of material on Babel brought to light by the opening of the KGB archives have fed the hope that the archives might contain the manuscripts seized in 1939.
Brent, who has supervised the publication of several books at Yale University Press based on material in the archives, said the missing Babel folders were probably in the former Soviet military collections, which have been less accessible to outsiders than the KGB archives.
"The military had a particular interest in Babel ever since he served in the military himself in 1920," Brent said. "They looked on him as a writer about the military, and Babel to the end of his days looked on himself as a military man. There is a good possibility that the materials taken when he was arrested would have been brought to military intelligence, or asked for by them as part of their holdings."
What are the chances that the Babel folders have survived?
Brent said that during the chaos of the German invasion in World War II, a lot of material was lost. He added: "That said, it is still the case that Babel's KGB file was not lost, and a great deal of material remained intact. Moreover, I don't think that Babel's manuscripts would have had a special place in the thinking of the government at that time. So I believe the manuscripts are still there someplace."
Even if Babel's lost novel is rediscovered, mysteries will remain, including the greatest of them all. "Why did they kill him?" Elie Wiesel, the writer and Nobel Peace Prize laureate, asked at the Babel colloquium.
Various reasons have been given, among them Stalin's growing anti-Semitism, or possibly _ as Brent theorizes _ his attempt to ingratiate himself with the Nazis, with whom he created an alliance in 1939, the year of Babel's arrest. Possibly it was sheer paranoia, Stalin's suspicion that a man who knew writers abroad, had traveled and had an international audience presented a danger. Whatever the reason, Babel disappeared, along with millions of others.