Monday, February 29, 2016

Heart Of A DogHeart Of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

"A policeman should be posted alongside every person in the country with the job of moderating the vocal outbursts of our honest citizenry."

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is one of the best books I have ever read, and - to display my arrogant certainty - one of the best books ever written. I have read it twice and plan to read it one more time before senility naturally wins the battle. Alas, Heart of a Dog (1925) is not even remotely in the same category. It is just an amusing trifle of a story, densely packed with crude social and political satire.

The story takes place in Moscow, in the early-to-mid 1920s, and begins with a stray dog bawling in pain after getting scalded by boiling water. The dog is hungry and almost ready for death when the incredible happens: a world-famous doctor, professor Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky (PPP, for short), passes by and notices the suffering mongrel. Not only does he feed the dog (he happens to have in his pocket a piece of really good sausage, Special Cracower - the author of this review can vouch for really special quality of that brand of sausage), but also takes the dog to the palatial apartment which serves as the professor's residence and clinic. It turns out that PPP has acted not just out of the goodness of his heart: he has been looking for a subject of a groundbreaking medical procedure. Transplantation of human testicles and the pituitary gland into the dog is successful and the dog slowly transforms into a male human ('transforms' transliterates into 'preobrazovaet' in Russian, hence the professor's name). The story continues with various comical effects amidst the grim, early Soviet reality .

The novella is a very thinly veiled satire on one of the central tenets of Communism. The successful Bolshevik revolution of the late 1917 (one of the worst catastrophes in human recorded history) among its objectives had the aim of creating the New Soviet Man, one who comes from the proletariat and gets rid of all traces of the past, bourgeois culture. The stray dog represents the working class and the professor transforms it into a faithful functionary of the Soviet apparatus. The New Man indeed.

Obviously, this "great social experiment" did not work, and already five years after the revolution the Communist leaders tried to undo the damage (almost total destruction of Soviet economy) by introducing the so-called New Economic Policy (NEP), which included some elements of market economy. Mr. Bulgakov's portrayal of the Soviet society in the relatively benign times of NEP is insightful. (But then Stalin came and showed the world that by killing a few tens of millions of people, one can easily enslave a few hundreds of millions of people. These times were no longer suitable for satire.)

I am unable to appreciate the humor in the novella too much. Although in my life I have met several functionaries not unlike Comrade Shvonder, the satire is too crude for my taste. I like the description of the dog-to-human operation: three pages of rather explicit medical language are impressive (Mr. Bulgakov was a physician). Overall, though, this is not a good introduction to works of the author. One should not read this trifle before reading the magnificent Master and Margarita

The novella is quite short - almost exactly 100 pages - which, to me, is a perfect size for a book. But the edition that I have read (Classic House Books, 2009) is printed from a computer scan and has on average one typo per page. Shame.

Two stars.

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