Everyone knows that the army is a place that is resistant to intellectuals. It's a place where force and action dominate over reflection and thought. Isaac Emmanuelovich Babel
's short story, My First Goose, is mainly about the awkward situation an intellectual
finds himself in when he gets stuck with a bunch of rough and brute soldiers. The story draws on the life of the author who came to know the army as a journalist on the war front in the early 1920s Russian-Polish war.
My First Goose is only one of many stories in Babel's Red Cavalry
cycle but it is the most anthologized one in the US because its description of a frail, meek intellectual adjusting himself to the brutality of war
has captured the imagination of many American readers.
The short story is very simple: Lyutov gets a rude welcome from the Ukrainian Cossacks
after being assigned as an embedded journalist to their brigade. These rough guys peg him early on as a wimp intellectual and decide to show off their macho superiority. Calling Lyutov "one of those scholar kids.. a mangy specimen with glasses on your nose ... that you could get killed for," they throw his sack of papers over the gate and fart in his face! The journalist finds this uninhibited rough play very unsettling, but being the intellectual geek
that he is, uses very mild terms to describe it. "A young fellow went up to my trunk.. threw it over the gate.. turned his back to me... and began to emit shameful noises."
It's only in the beginning of the story that Lyutov's language is timid. After being treated like crap, the intellectual gets so angry that he ends up dropping his habitual politeness and changing himself into a rough and aggressive guy. He lets his bottled up rage
against the Cossacks find its release in a confrontation with an elderly woman and a goose.
In a surge of aggressive masculinity
, Lyutov joyfully murder
s the bird. "I caught up with the goose
, pushed it to the ground, the goose's head cracked under my boot, snapped, and the blood
began to flow." His mind savours the details of the goose
's death - its "neck lying in the mud" and its "wings flapping over its dead body" - as if celebrating a glorious victory.
The snapping of the neck and the flow of blood
emboldens Lyutov to prove himself a fearful aggressor by intimidating an elderly lady. He shoves a fist in the woman's chest and threatens to strangle her if she doesn't cook the goose.. "By God I'll strangle you woman," he mutters to her and jabs the blade of a sword into the dead goose to strike fear in her heart.
The stunt works as the Cossacks
decide to accept him as a real man: "'The fellow is ok' they say amongst themselves and invite him to "come and have some grub with us until your goose is done." As he dines with them on cabbage soup
and pork, he tries to once again prove his masculinity by reading a newspaper to them in a very loud, aggressive voice. Exact quote: "And loudly, like an exultant blind man, I read Lenin's speech to the Cossacks."
Surprisingly enough, we find out at the end of the story that this whole "I am a man, hear me roar" act was just all show. As Lyutov falls asleep in the soldiers' shed, he offers us the confession that "my heart, stained with the blood of the killing, creaked and bled."
Since, no one has yet noded Isaac Babel
, I will provide a few lines of biographical information. Babel grew up as a Russian
-speaking Jew in Odessa
, Ukraine and drew on his experience as a war-correspondent during the 1920s Russian Civil and Polish-Soviet wars as inspiration for his writing.
His claim to fame rests on two short story collections, the Red Cavalry
cycle about the Polish
-Soviet war of the 1920s and the Odessa Stories
(see footnote for more detail) about his childhood among gangsters and petty traders in the Jewish ghetto. His literature was eventually forbidden because the authorities considered it to be counter-revolutionary.
He himself was punished for his counter-revolutionary writing by being arrested in 1939 and eventually shot in 1941. His manuscripts were seized during his arrest and have not since then been recovered. By the way, it's important to realize that in the context of the time his death was quite ordinary. Writing literature that was perceived to be against the revolution was frequently punished by death and his sad story echoes those of so many others caught in the maws of an impersonal, brutal governmental machine.
By the way, for those interested in the story, you can find it in Babel's Collected Stories
or in Babel's Red Cavalry
Footnote about the Odessa Stories
Babel's Odessa stories
are characterized by his obsession with masculinity. In the Awakening
, he bemoans the excessive femininity of Jewish boys who are forced to learn the violin and not allowed to practice sports. In The Story of My Dovecot
he admires the machismo of violent Cossacks who commit pogroms in the Jewish ghetto. The only Jewish character who becomes an object of Babel's admiration is the hypermasculine Jewish gangster Benya Krik.
A thank you to Shaogo, IWhoSawTheFace, and JetPoop for their help.