2 April 2010

Mikhail Bulgakov, The Heart of a Dog, 1925

The Heart of a Dog has ingredients that make it a satirical classic, yet it would surely have been funnier still to its intended Russian audience. Bulgakov had constant problems with censors and he never saw publication of The Heart of a Dog in the Soviet Union in his lifetime: he died in 1940 and it was suppressed there until as late as 1987, appearing only a few years before the fall of Soviet Communism. Philip Philipovich, a rich and respected Moscow doctor who specialises in rejuvenation, decides to experiment with some transplant surgery on a stray mongrel known as Sharik with a few body parts from a recently deceased prole, and unwittingly transforms the dog into a poor resemblance of a cultured man. What gives this book its spark is the downtrodden dog’s character, which kicks off and then punctuates the rest of the story very nicely indeed. Bulgakov displayed a splendid sense of fun in this satire on the Russian Revolution, in which the uneducated and common proletariat expected to simply be handed a share of the wealth, and when encapsulated in the character of Sharik they’re also satirised as aspiring – and of course failing – to take on the airs and graces of the bourgeois elite. The doctor’s frequent counter-revolutionary rants are what help this novel endure as a modern and edgy one: right or wrong, Bulgakov gave the reader room to still wish the world was a fairer and more evenly divided place, despite the entrenched imbalance between rich and poor that became the source of his best jokes. A book that can’t be missed by those with a taste for sharp satire.  PY


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