I read Mikhail Bulgakov's novella A Dog's Heart (Penguin Classics, trans. Andrew Bromfield) all in one day, so quickly that it never even appeared in my Currently Reading sidebar. It was one of those spur of the moment, pick-it-up-just-to-see kind of reads. I was hooked in by the first short, direct sentences:
Whoo-hoo-oo-hoo-oo-oo! Oh, just look at me, look I'm dying here. The blizzard's singing my last rites under the gate, and I'm howling along. I'm done for, I'm finished.
116 pages later and it was all over. The howling narrator is Sharik, a mangy stray dog on the streets of 1920s Moscow. He's had it pretty rough, having been kicked, beaten and abused all of his short brutal life. It has made him cunning, and desperate. When a well-dressed bourgeoisie approaches him in the street, offers him a snaffle of salami and then lures him home, he's more than eager to follow. 'Follow you?' he thinks, 'To the end of the world. Kick me with your felt book if you like, I won't say a word.' Sharik is grateful for his abasement, so long as it comes with the occasional mouthful of meat.
He's rather puzzled by his new master Filipp Filippovich, a Professor of Medicine, who has the ear of high-up Party Officials and lives in a huge 7-room apartment with two servants, a cook and a housekeeper-cum-surgical assistant. He treats patients for unspecified sexual complaints with rather sickening operations: one woman has her aging ovaries replaced with monkey ovaries. In the evenings, if he doesn't visit the theatre or the opera, he conducts rather ghastly experiments on human brains:
Sharik lay in the shadow on the carpet and gazed in fascination at the appaling goings-on. There were human brains lying in repulsive, cloudy, acrid fluid in glass jars. With his arms bare to the elbows and reddish rubber gloves on his hands, the Deity [Sharik sees him as a God] fumbled in the convolutions with slippery, unfeeling fingers. Sometimes the Deity would arm himself with a little gleaming knife...
Evidently these sinister activities do not bode well for poor Sharik. As soon as he has put on weight and returned to good health, he is subjected to experimentation by Filipp Filoppovich and his assistant, Dr Bormenthal. First his testicles are removed and replaced with human testicles; and then his pituatary gland likewise. There is little to no expectation that he will survive, but survive he does, and with horrifying consequences. Sharik begins to change: his hair falls out, his limbs lengthen, and then he begins to speak.
Disturbing, yes? All this is set against the upheaval in Russia following the death of Lenin, before the rise and rise of Stalin. Filipp Filippovich is a dying breed, a remnant of the middle classes, and soon to become an anachronism. The housing association for his building, led by the passionately Marxist Shvonder, are outraged by his privilege, which he openly flaunts. 'You hate the proletariat!' the woman said fervently. 'Yes, I'm not fond of the proletariat,' Filipp Filippovich agreed sadly'. He bemoans what he sees as the collapse of civilisation during the Revolution of 1917. Galoshes are his curious marker: before 1917 he could leave his dirty galoshes at the door of the apartment building, but during the Revolution they were stolen from the stand. Now you couldn't leave galoshes or they will be pinched. 'Why can't the proletariat leave it's galoshes downstairs, why does it trail mud across the marble?' he groans, 'Why in damnation did they remove the plants from the landing?'
You could almost feel sorry for this relict of a more gentile age if he wasn't so clearly a psychopathic nutter, a truly mad scientist of the old school. Sharik is his Frankenstein's monster. The consequences of his meddling are both simple and complex, straightforward and allegorical. There is little wonder that the original manuscript of the story was seized by censors in 1925 or that it remained unpublished until 1987. Bulgakov's story is the most damaging kind of critique for a regime: it is fiercely critical of the status quo but doesn't descend into staightforward nostalgia for an old way of doing things. Both present and past ways are flawed; so flawed as to be positively grotesque.
Bulgakov is a piquant writer and I find his descriptions irresistable. The pleasure in this story for me was not (unsurprisingly?) the savage transformation of a dog into a man, but the sentence-by-sentence construction of the world. The blizzard that 'cracks its rifle above their heads'; the 'weeping piece of cheese on a heavy board and caviar in a silver tub heaped around with snow'; and 'the table, as heavy as a tombstone'. The angry ugliness of the satire is a little salved by this evidencing of solid reality. It invites a sort of poignancy into the story and humanises the characters who would otherwise be straightforward caricatures. It gives a necessary balance: it means that A Dog's Heart is not just a parable, but a grounded story too.