Friday, May 19, 2017

A Dog's Heart, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Written in 1925, Mikhail Bulgakov's A Dog's Heart is an hilarious, razor sharp satire on the Communist revolution. Banned by the censors, it is now rightly considered a classic.

Professor Preobrazhensky is a haughty, arrogant, overly confident and somewhat mercurial scientist. He lives in a lavish, luxurious apartment of seven rooms where he performs bizarre medical experiements. When the professor meets a stray street dog that has been recently injured he takes him in. The dog thinks he has landed on his feet, but things soon take a sinister turn. With the help of his assistant, Dr Bormental, Professor Preobrazhensky transplants the organs from a recently deceased young man into the dog. The professor and doctor sit back to see what happens.

The dog starts learning a word or two, then starts forming sentences. Before long, the dog has learnt to stand and can pass for a human. He calls himself Sharikov and even gets an official job under the Communist regime (he has a sponsor working in the government) hunting down stray cats. Sharikov causes all sorts of mischief and has an unruly tongue. He's crass and vulgar, the very opposite of the aristocratic, if crazy, Professor Preobrazhensky. When it becomes clear that Sharikov is out of control, Preobrazhensky and Dr Bormental argue over how best to put the genie back in the bottle. Can the operation be reversed, or should Sharikov be killed?

Even though A Dog's Heart is ostensibly a satire on the Communist regime and ideology (Sharikov represents the idealised New Soviet Man), it reads brilliantly as a mad Frankenstein-like story. Bulgakov's writing is bracing and witty. The novella's pacing is brisk, with never a dull page. There's also a great cast of characters, all vividly drawn: there are the frowning assistants and bungling housemaids, the arrogant visiting governement officials and police. Professor Preobrazhensky is wonderfully obnoxious and eccentric; Sharikov hilariously coarse and vulgar, barking out unwelcome comments. Bulgakov has his sizeable cast skilfully interact in a zany, absurdist dance that shows his complete control and mastery.

A Dog's Heart is top shelf fiction, on a level with Dostoyevsky. No small praise indeed.

A Dog's Heart, by Mikhail Bulgakov. Published by Alma Classics. ISBN:  9781847495686 RRP: $19.99

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