Commentary by Karen Bernardo
Isaac Babel’s story, “My First Goose,” tells the story of a young, educated Jew named Liutov who is serving in the Cossack army during the Galician war in 1920. He has been assigned to a camp of rough Cossack soldiers, where -- as is often the way with fighting men—his intellectuality is mistaken for wimpiness, and his intelligence for over-sensitivity. In order to “make points” with his commanding officer and “fit in” with the men whose companionship he shares, he roughly accosts an old peasant woman and brutally kills her goose, then ordering her to cook it for him. He is aware that his behavior is most unlike his “real self” but it does make the other soldiers consider him one of them. The story ends with him going to sleep in a hayloft with his new friends, “warming each other, [their] legs intermingled.”
The most interesting thing about this story is the uneasy truce which Liutov strikes between his Jewishness and the “otherness” of the Cossacks. Babel demonstrates in his story that the reason Liutov tries so desperately to inculcate himself with the Cossacks is that he actually feels great insecurity about his own identity as a Jew. Liutov sees the Cossacks as manly, muscular, virile, vital, and exciting; on the other hand, he perceives Jews like himself to be either over-civilized, aesthetic urbanites or powerless peasants. For this reason, he is seeking a “new identity” for himself, and he feels he has to be violent and unfeeling to achieve this.
In today’s world, this seems like a dangerous attitude. Yet it was actually a very common perception in Babel’s day, and explains much about the otherwise inexplicable behavior of Liutov in Babel’s story. Babel himself served in the Russian Army, and clearly wanted to be sent to the front, wanted to be in the thick of the fighting. When he finally received the assignment to join the Cossack Cavalry unit, he was elated, for he seemed to feel that finally he would experience real life. He certainly must have known that this deliberate cultivation of his “barbaric” self would mean the erasure of his Jewish one, but that’s a sacrifice he seems willing to make.
Of course, one’s upbringing cannot really be erased—and it is this discomfiture that we sense in reading “My First Goose.” At the beginning of the story, Liutov is characterized as slightly-built and bespectacled; he is the complete antithesis of the massive Savitsky, the Cossack division commander, who smiles as he strikes his riding whip on the table. And it was this type of man whom Babel unconsciously admired at this point in his life, and this type of man whom he unconsciously wanted to be.
Yet we also sense that Liutov is not comfortable with being the kind of man who kills an old woman’s goose and forces her to cook it for him. Babel did not grow up to embrace the Army as a lifetime career; he became a writer. And even in this story there are passages breathtaking in their sensitive beauty—for instance: “The dying sun, round and yellow as a pumpkin, was giving up its roseate ghost to the skies.” Whatever Liutov/Babel might have thought at the time, in no way is this the soul of a warrior.
But he cannot allow the other Cossacks to suspect this. In order to win their respect, Liutov will have to become like them. He will have to transform himself from a small, meek, bespectacled person into a macho “tough guy.” As the quartermaster points out, the easiest way to do this is to pick on someone weaker, and prevail.
The person he picks on is an old, nearly-blind woman. Babel does not say she is Jewish, any more than he says that Liutov is; he expects, from the story’s context, that we would know this. Because she is Jewish, she represents the “secret life” of Liutov himself, and this is a secret life from which he would like to achieve as much distance as possible. He has put that life roughly away from his consciousness, and thus he treats the old woman roughly too.
Approaching the old woman, who sits on her porch, spinning, Liutov demands food. In return, she asks for compassion, telling him that “What with all this going on, I want to go and hang myself.” But compassion is the one thing that Liutov cannot afford to show her, for two good reasons: it would make him appear soft in the eyes of the Cossacks, and it might—just might—raise suspicions about his own Judaism. He swears in the name of Christ (thus re-affirming his connection with his “new persona,” and his severance with his “old self”) and tells her he’s not ‘going to go into explanations with her.’ The new Liutov doesn’t feel he owes his old self anything.
Then he kills the old woman’s goose. He does this as a sign that he has conquered her; he has killed, and robbed, and pillaged. He has, in short, behaved like a barbarian. Through his actions he has shown that he cannot possibly be a sensitive Jewish intellectual; he is obviously a tough, macho Cossack. The fact that after he kills the goose, he hands it back to the old woman and commands her to cook it for him is the ultimate indignity; now he is treating the old woman like a slave, and by taking the bird off to the kitchen she has acquiesced to his right to do so.
Most importantly, however, Liutov’s killing of the goose has the effect on the Cossacks that he so desperately wanted. One of them says, “The lad’s all right,” and winks at him. He cements his bond with them by eating pork—a firm repudiation of his Judaism—but he is at last able to contribute to the group his own special area of knowledge, his literacy. The one who asks him to read the newspaper aloud is the same boy who teased him so rudely earlier in the story; “loudly, like a triumphant man hard of hearing,” Liutov reads Lenin’s speech to these rude, illiterate men who are so far from the cultural base which has given Liutov the ability to perform this seemingly simple act.
In “My First Goose” we are shown an ardent, idealistic young man who is thinks life as a member of the Jewish intelligentsia is too boring, and life as a member of the Yiddish peasantry is unspeakably low. However, as Babel implies, becoming a Cossack is not really what will fulfill Liutov after all, because it is not what fulfilled Babel. Liutov wanted to ride with the Cossacks because it was exciting; he wanted to be accepted by them because it made him feel more like a man. This was undoubtedly true of Babel in 1920 as well. But five years passed between the summer Babel spent with the Cossacks and the time he finally wrote this story, and we can see that his perception has changed dramatically. The last line of the story tells us that after killing the old woman’s goose, after eating pork with the coarse and rude Cossacks, after drifting off to sleep with his legs “intermingled” with theirs, Liutov’s heart “grated” within him.
In the end, it probably does not really matter whether one goes through life as a good Jew, a good Christian, a good Muslim, or whatever. Most people today feel that one honors God most fully by honoring even the most humble objects of His creation; and the acts performed by Liutov in the course of this story violate that goal. In order to be accepted by insensitive clods, Liutov threatens to sacrifice his sensitivity and his beauty of soul, but he can’t quite manage it; he betrays his conscious attempt to be warlike with the beauty and sensitivity of his words. No matter how he tries, Liutov is irrevocably a Jew and irrevocably an intellectual; nothing he can do will make him a true warrior, because he doesn’t have the heart for it—or, more accurately, he has way too much. He will learn this as he grows, just as Babel himself did. The grating of his heart in the last paragraph is a good and positive sign.
These stories can be found in Babel’s collection Red Cavalry, available from Amazon here.
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