movement, movement

The Death of Isaac Babel

Posted in books, life by amoslanka on August 4, 2009

I’ve just finished reading one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read, The History of Love by Nicole Krauss. The book was not a life-saver but definitely a peace-giver. What else does one need in concerned times but to read about an old man, a great unrecognized author, who lost his only love as a young man and now performs silly acts of disruption just so people will notice him as he expects to die at any time, and a young detective of a girl named Alma after every girl in a rare book her father gave her mother when they first met?

The novel, in certain respects, is a story woven around a novel of the same name, written by a boy who’d loved a girl since age 10, only to lose her when she left Poland for the United States during World War 2.The novel contains snippets from the “internal” novel as well as other writings by the same fictitious author. The only writings more breathtaking than Krauss’s words in The History of Love are the writings by her fictitious authors within that novel, which of course, are also written by Krauss.

One particular string of articles included were a set of obituaries, written by a young character about the time he himself was also attempting to flea Poland. A few particularly stood out to me, and I’ll include one here, entitled The Death of Isaac Babel. (read about the real Isaac Babel here.)

Only after they charged him with the crime of silence did [Issac] Babel discover how many kinds of silences existed. When he heard music he no longer listened to the notes, but the silences in between. When he read a book he gave himself over entirely to commas and semicolons, to the space after the period and before the capital letter of the next sentence. He discovered the places in a room where silence gathered; the folds of curtain drapes, the deep bowls of the family silver. When people spoke to him, he heard less and less of what they were not. He learned to decipher the meaning of certain silences, which is like solving a tough case without any clues, not only intuition. And no one could accuse him of not being prolific in his chosen métier. Daily, he turned out whole epics of silence. In the beginning it had been difficult. Imagine the burden of keeping silent when your child asks you whether God exists, or the woman you love asks if you love her back. At first Babel longed for the use of just two words: Yes and No. But he knew that just to utter a single word would be to destroy the delicate fluency of silence.

Even after they arrested him and burned all of his manuscripts, which were all blank pages, he refused to speak. Not even a groan when they gave him a blow to the head, a boot tip in the groin. Only at the last possible moment, as he faced the firing squad, did the writer Babel suddenly sense the possibility of his error. As the rifles were pointed at his chest he wondered if what he had taken for the richness of silence was really the poverty of never being heard. He had thought the possibilities of human silence were endless. But as the bullets tore from the rifles, his body was riddled with the truth. And a small part of him laughed bitterly because, anyway, how could he have forgotten what he had always known: There’s no match for the silence of God.

How does one see anything but slow motion or hear anything but distant echos after reading these two paragraphs? Such a powerful page leaves me in the same state as after I’d read for the first time, Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor: somewhere between staring in a mirror, asking if its really myself looking back, and weeping, silently or not, internally or not.

That is where it put me. A week later I’m finally writing about it. A week later I’m finally writing the first post containing more than one paragraph that I’ve written in a month. A week later I’m celebrating life with my Portland family and sharing the light and dark of my recent weeks. Josh Ritter said that only a full house will have a chance. Only a full house can bring the exponential meaning to both the silence and the sound. Chuck Cooper says we fly high and we fall hard. I want it no other way, because I have faith in the verses we’ve sung and the chorus to come.


3 Responses

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  1. ash said, on August 10, 2009 at 5:37 pm

    i believe that now i have such a response. i have read it again….and my take on it, my perspective may be different than some or the same of others- but here goes:

    i never want to experience the silence of God. sure, there may be moments of silence, where i must learn and act as He would have me. but i take this silence to mean- “the absence of”- babel had created such a silence that it seems he created a world for which he was absent, in which he involved himself for no one, with no one, and “needing” no one…it was more about his voice not heard, it was about his cruel injustice to others, to God, in a sense. and in return- God removed himself from babel’s life….did it not destroy him?

    king saul experienced the silence of God…and he lived a tormented life. these are things i do not want in my own.

    it’s true, i have only read the excerpt and not the book. it is definitely now on the list. but if i were to take this at face value…..

  2. yvonnegu said, on August 11, 2009 at 3:49 am

    I read this book only once. It had a great influence of me and I read it almost straight through which, unfortunately, is very unusual for me. The more I read other people’s comments and reviews, the more I feel that as much as I loved the book, I missed a lot.

    I want to thank you for your review, which I think is exceptionally well written.

    I think the previous commenter perhaps missed knowing that that death scene took place in the Holocaust.

    • ash said, on August 14, 2009 at 9:01 am


      i made my comments taking the excerpt at face value….and i mention that

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