My First Goose, by Isaac Babel. From The Red Cavalry Stories, in The Collected Stories of Isaac Babel (edit. Nathalie Babel. Trans. Peter Constantine)
It’s a classic short story, less than four pages long, but true to Isaac Babel’s aesthetic principle, My First Goose demonstrates both “precision and brevity.” Told from the point of view of the newest recruit to the Sixth Division, the narrator is an unlikely fighter, bookish and bespectacled—something like the author himself—and his “assignment to the divisional staff” quickly becomes an introduction to the Cossacks’ brand of war.
Within the story’s brief action, the narrator, an educated outsider, is mocked by the commander (“Here you get hacked to pieces just for wearing glasses!”), the quartermaster (“…this man has suffered on the fields of learning!”), and of course, the Cassocks, one of whom, the narrator tells us, “turned his backside toward me, and with uncommon dexterity began emitting shameless sounds.”
Then there is the mistress of the house they occupy whose misery exceeds his own:
“Mistress,” I said, “I need some grub!”
The old woman raised the dripping whites of her half-blind eyes to me and lowered them again.
“Comrade,” she said, after a short silence. “All of this makes me want to hang myself.”
Babel, who came under the nightmarish authority of Stalin’s post-revolutionary purge of the intelligentsia and following his arrest in May of 1939 was murdered by firing squad, is a voice that, like his contemporary Kafka, spares nothing in its portrayal of brutality. Babel saw it first-hand as a correspondent riding with the Communist Red Cavalry during the Bolshevik Revolution, but less than two decades later, fell under it himself, arrested as a subversive on trumped up charges and subsequently tried in secret.
War is hell, and so is dictatorship, but Babel’s genius his ability to portray in language that is piercing and full of beauty, and which survives, as does his famous literary dictum: “No iron spike can pierce a human heart as icily as a period in the right place.”