My First Goose (Moi Pervyi Gus') by Isaak Babel, 1926

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MY FIRST GOOSE (Moi pervyi gus')
by Isaak Babel, 1926

Although he tried his hand at a number of literary genres, Isaak Babel was preeminently a master of the short story. His reputation rests largely on the collection Red Cavalry (Konarmiig) some 35 impressionistic tales that reflect the writer's experience as a correspondent attached to the Soviet cavalry during the 1920 Polish campaign. Laconic and polished in style, dealing with violence in an atmosphere of extreme moral ambiguity, the stories are both brilliantly made and deeply disturbing. Crafted for intensity of effect, they reveal character and theme not through lengthy narration or probing psychological analyses but through vivid imagery and the dramatic rendering of speech and action. The language of the stories exhibits a great variety of tonalities: documentary objectivity alternates with first-person lyric melancholy, and both of these with patches of vulgar dialogue. The abrupt transitions and sharply contrasting stylistic levels assault the reader with a variety of conflicting impressions, and often the stories' ambiguities and ironies are left unresolved.

Babel is an intensely personal, even autobiographical writer, and questions of private identity play a central role in his art. Many of the Red Cavalry stories deal with his response to the conflicting claims of culture and nature, a clash of values dramatized in the tensions between the stories' narrator, a Jewish intellectual much like Babel himself, and the half-literate, often brutal, yet virile Cossacks with whom he serves. The narrator, for all his apparent cultural advantages, refuses to adopt an attitude of moral superiority; something in the Cossack ethos, however antithetical to traditional Jewish values, appeals to him—not the violence certainly, but something akin to it, the physical vitality or the primacy given the sensual self.

At the opening of "My First Goose" ("Moi pervyi gus"') the narrator, newly appointed to the staff of a combat division, observes his divisional commander with an almost naive envy and admiration:

I wondered at the beauty of his giant's body. He rose, the purple of his riding breeches and the crimson of his tilted cap and the decorations stuck on his chest cleaving the hut as a standard cleaves the sky. A smell of scent and the sickly sweet freshness of soap emanated from him. His long legs were like girls sheathed to the neck in shining riding boots.

The commander, learning that his bespectacled new recruit is a law school graduate, reacts with disdain. The narrator, denied by his superior the "satisfaction" of serving at the front, sets off to find a billet and a home with the Cossack troop. The newcomer is greeted with a barrage of taunts and insults. One of the soldiers overturns his trunk, scattering his manuscripts and belongings about the yard. Humiliated, hungry, and lonely, the narrator settles down by himself and tries to read a speech of Lenin's in Pravda, but the Cossacks continue to torment him. Resolving on a face-saving action, he puts aside his newspaper and accosts the peasant landlady with a demand for food. When she responds with a mildly muttered complaint, he picks up a sword lying nearby:

A severe-looking goose was waddling about the yard, inoffensively preening its feathers. I overtook it and pressed it to the ground. Its head cracked beneath my boot, cracked and emptied itself. The white neck lay stretched out in the dung, the wings twitched. "Christ!" I said, digging into the goose with my sword. "Go and cook it for me, landlady."

The sacrifice produces the desired effect. The Cossacks, "im-mobile and stiff as heathen priests," invite him to join them, to share their food, and to read to them from the text of Lenin's speech. The price of community has been paid, but a brief and telling image reveals the inner revulsion that now infects the narrator's perception of the world: "the moon hung above the yard like a cheap earring."

The narrator's action, successful with the Cossacks, strikes us as tawdry and perverse, and the story itself resembles a travesty of a tale of initiation. The "hero" has faced no formidable challenge, only an old woman and her goose; even the title sounds like a mocking variant of grimmer alternatives such as "My First Kill" or "My First Rape." Furthermore, the killing is linked to a repressed and perverse sexuality. The quartermaster's suggestion that the newcomer gain acceptance by "messing up a pure lady" hints at a kind of symbolic matricide, the destruction of the maternal sway in order to gain the affection of the Cossack brotherhood. But the killing of a bird turns out to be less an appropriate rite of passage than a mutilation of the narrator's own deepest self. In two other Babel tales, "The Story of My Dove-cote" and "First Love," which deal with the writer's childhood, we find a kind of dialectic with the present story. In one there is a scene in which a crippled cigarette vendor, frustrated by his inability to join in the looting during a pogrom, seizes the narrator's newly bought pet pigeon and crushes it against his face. In the other story the boy is comforted by the Russian woman in whose house he and his violated family have found shelter, a women for whom he feels the first stirrings of sensual desire. Here again, then, the slaying of a bird, this time the narrator's own, is linked to the discovery of harsh truths and to sexuality. Our sense of Babel's irony and of his narrator's conflicted spirit is further heightened when we recall that in another story from Red Cavalry the narrator is likened to Francis of Assisi, the saint with the failing eyes, who especially loved birds and sought to protect them from wanton destruction.

Near the end of "My First Goose" even the narrator's attainment of community is cast into doubt. Reading aloud from Lenin's speech, he exults in the intellectual's pleasure of "spying out the secret curve of Lenin's straight line," but the Cossacks admire Lenin's directness, the way he "strikes at truth straight off, like a hen at grain." The narrator thus has not become one with his comrades after all; their "straight" way is not his, neither in brute action nor in its justification. With the coming of night he is overwhelmed with an ambivalent longing for the rejected mother and with a poignant sense of the loss of innocence: "Evening wrapped about me the quickening moisture of its twilight sheets, evening laid a mother's hand upon my burning forehead." When he lies down with the others to sleep, for all their physical closeness he is still alone, estranged from himself as well as from the Cossacks, troubled by harsh and discordant dreams:

We slept, all six of us, beneath a wooden roof that let in the stars, warming one another, our legs intermingled. I dreamed; and in my dreams saw women. But my heart, stained with bloodshed, grated and brimmed over.

—James E. Falen