Although perhaps not the most well known of the early twentieth century Jewish writers from Russia and Eastern Europe, Isaac Babel's work certainly deserves more attention. I first came across him in a college short fiction textbook which included his story, "My First Goose." This powerful story is about an outsider, the other in current critical parlance — both because he is a Jew and an intellectual — who is assigned to join a new red army unit. He arrives only to be met with abuse: "A young lad with long, flaxen hair and a beautiful Ryazan face walked over to my trunk and hurled it out of the gate. Then he turned his posterior to me and, with a special knack, began to emit some disreputable sounds."
Dismayed at the hostility of the Cossacks and unsure of how he will be able to survive among them, he takes out his frustrations by killing an old peasant woman's goose and ordering her to prepare it for his dinner. Almost absurdly, it is through this act of cruelty, an act that would seem to be quite alien to his character, that he is accepted by the rest of the soldiers. They see in this act of barbarism a kinship. The most senior of the Cossacks approaches him, calls him "Brother," and asks him to join in their supper. He reads to them. He goes to sleep with them. But though he is accepted by them, his acceptance has come at a price: "I had dreams and saw women in my dreams, and only my heart, stained crimson with murder, squeaked and overflowed."
Recently, while browsing through a used book store, I came across the Penguin paperback edition of Babel's Collected Stories. Whatever the great expectations "My First Goose" raised in me, the stories in this collection didn't disappoint. The stories are divided into four groups: "Early Stories," "'Autobiographical' Stories," "Red Cavalry" (the volume which originally contained "My First Goose"), and "Odessa Stories."
The stories, sometimes more like sketches, in "Red Cavalry" describe his experiences when he joined the Red Cossacks in the short 1920 war against Poland. His emphasis is on how the horrors of war effect affect the men who fight — some rising to heroic action, some unable to cope; some unexpectedly rising to leadership, some escaping to brutalism. The stories demonstrate that little has changed in the way men deal with the barbarities of war. A young peasant is elevated to a position of leadership in the field, and he rides away from battle with "the lordly indifference of a Tartar kahn." On the other hand the narrator complains ""The chronicle of our humdrum evil doings constricts me indefatigably, like a heart complaint." A red Cossack takes vicious revenge on white Russian villagers who were complicit in the murder of his parents.
The "Odessa Stories" are a kind of Yiddish version of The Godfather. Benya Krik, the central figure of many of these tales is a Jewish Don Corleone. He rules the town with an iron hand. When the police plan to raid the wedding (there is even a wedding) of his sister, he has the police station burned down. When the richest dairy farmer in the area refuses to pay him protection, he has all his cows killed. When he decides he wants to marry the man's daughter, the farmer has no choice but to agree to the match. Krik is a reminder that Italians don't necessarily have a monopoly on the underworld.
While the "Autobiographical Stories" may not be all that autobiographical, they do seem to depict an authentic moment in the history of the Russian Jewish community through the eyes of what may well be a typical Jewish child. In "The Story of My Dovecote," the young narrator's childhood innocence embodied in his purchase of pet doves is destroyed by a brutal pogrom, which not only kills his birds, but his grand-uncle as well. "First Love" continues the tale, as the reader is shown the devastating effect of the pogrom on the boy's father. Other stories emphasize the importance of learning and art as a means for the Jewish child to get ahead in the gentile world. It is by their intelligence that the Jews hope to make a better life for themselves. It is ironic, that it is this very intelligence that provokes the animosity of the Cossack soldiers in "My First Goose," that it is the reversion to animalistic brutalism that finds acceptance.
Isaac Babel is a writer whose work deserves to be better known. He gives life to a world long gone, but in many ways not much different from the world today.