‘Dolgushov’s Death’ by Isaac Babel

Dolgushov’s Death by Isaac Babel, 1926

The magic trick:

Showing that even after a harrowing experience in the heat of battle, the narrator must dismiss any remaining humanity in his soul if he wants to truly fit in

I’m excited to start this week of stories – all culled from Isaac Babel’s legendary Red Cavalry collection, in which he turned his experiences as a correspondent covering the Polish-Soviet War into brilliant, haunting short stories.

I’d read “My First Goose,” as a standalone, so I had a sense of what I was getting myself into. But a single story doesn’t do the entire collection justice as an achievement.

“My First Goose” is a good point of reference too for today’s feature, “Dolgushov’s Death,” as both stories do a painfully good job of showing how war – no matter how refined your intellectual ideas about the conflict are – demands only brutality.

In “Dolgushov’s Death,” our narrator, Kiril Lyutov, takes us through three harrowing pages of description. The battle is terrible. Machine-gun fire, confusion, what the narrator calls “the exhilaration of disaster.” It’s awful, and you can’t help but see Lyutov, right in the middle of the action, as “one of the guys;” a soldier to be held in some kind of awe for the almost superhuman levels of bravery he’s showing just to live through such an experience.

Quickly, however, the story shifts to Dolgushov, a dying man asking to be put out of his misery, and it’s clear that our narrator will never be considered “one of the guys.”

He may survive the battle’s chaos, but he still is not up for fulfilling Dolgushov’s request. He can’t do it, a job that is left to a fellow soldier he previously considered a friend.

It’s a difficult scene for the reader to take in, all the way around, and perfectly conveys the no-win nature of war.

And that’s quite a trick on Babel’s part.

The selection:

“Here, look,” Dolgushov said, as we pulled up to him. “I’m finished… know what I mean?”

“I know,” Grishchuk answered, reining in the horses.

“You’ll have to waste a bullet on me,” Dolgushov said.

He was sitting propped up against a tree. He lay with his legs splayed far apart, his boots pointing in opposite directions. Without lowering his eyes from me, he carefully lifted his shirt. His stomach was torn open, his intestines spilling to his knees, and we could see his heart beating.

“When the Poles turn up, they’ll have fun kicking me around. Here’s my papers. Write my mother where, what, why.”

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