"Art makes life, makes interest, makes importance"

September 4, 2014

"A Dog's Heart" by Bulgakov (The Art of the Novella 19)

A Dog's Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov is the fiercest literary criticism of Soviet society imaginable, written in 1925 when that regime was in power, although going through a small crisis - Lenin had just died, Stalin still was to appear, and there seems to have been a tiny possibility that the political experiment would be abandoned. It was a time of both hope and despair. The hope was soon squashed and A Dog's Heart  could only be published in 1987, many decades after the death of its author. Although a sharp satire, the story is nowhere strident or overtly political - it is always good fun and above all, extremely well written, on a par with Bulgakov's large novel The Master and Margerita.

Bulgakov certainly knew his Modernism and one of the nifty things is how he starts the story from the consciousness of the dog, roaming a bleak, snowbound Moscow, until the hungry mongrel is picked up by a passing medical doctor and taken to his comfortable apartment. The dog, who is called Sharik by the Professor (a common name for dogs in Russian), can't believe his good fortune: lots of meaty food, a warm home, a friendly master... but of course things are not what they seem. An funny motive here is, by the way, the recurring animosity the dog feels towards a stuffed owl that sits in the professor's study and that he seeks to destroy.

[Mikhail Bulgakov - Photo Wikipedia]

Professor Preobrazhensky has enticed the dog to his house to use it for a medical experiment, that he undertakes together with his assistant, Dr Bormenthal: they plan to implant human testicles and a pituitary gland into the dog and make it "human" - a parody by Bulgakov of the Communist experiment, where the proletarian masses were forcibly "uplifted" by the State in its social laboratory.

Professor Preobrazhensky is an old-time bourgeois who still holds on to his large and comfortable, multi-room apartment, because as a doctor he is granted many privileges by the State for his rare skills (the members of the Politburo are after all not immune from illness). But all around him the apartments from his wealthy neighbors are seized and divided into tiny flats into which disparate households are crammed by a crude and offensive "housing committee." The professor is basically depicted with sympathy by Bulgakov, as an old-fashioned gentleman-intellectual who stands up against the encroaching communists, and whose home is a rare spot of warmth and comfort in the cold new society.

The operation is described in great and gory detail - Bulgakov had not for nothing been an army surgeon during WWI. And, although difficult, it is successful - too much so, we might say, for the dog who gradually develops human traits - he starts walking on his hind legs and learns speaking - proves to be a real "proletarian:" brutish, vulgarian, aggressive, using "class revenge" as a pretext to get everything he wants. He teams up with the housing committee so that he can demand his own rooms in the professor's apartment, he is often drunk, noisy and uses vulgar language - and he can't keep his greedy hands off women... Of course he refuses to learn etiquette, because that smacks of Tsarism.

He drives the professor almost insane... what to do with him? Should the doctor just kill him, as he is after all a dog? But that is difficult, as the former canine now has papers and is officially registered under the preposterous name "Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov."

Is there a more sophisticated way to make him disappear?

A hilarious satire and scathing indictment of the "New Soviet Man." The novella moves at high pace, mixing surrealist scenes with lucid realism, and perfectly captures the mad atmosphere of those strange times.

A Dog's Heart has been translated by Andrew Bromfield and is available from Penguin Books.