Mikhail Bulgakov: A satirical genius with a “counter-revolutionary” streak
A couple of weeks ago while passing an Oxfam in Notting Hill Gate I spotted something in the window, which prompted me to go in. Now, I am not usually drawn to a book because of the cover but the sleeve of A Dog’s Heart did the trick; so perhaps the black and yellow high-visual-impact theory has a smidgen of truth to it. A Dog’s Heart is one of those books that I read years ago and had been meaning to re-read ever since to see whether it is still as shrewd and flippantly brilliant as it seemed upon initial evaluation. Written in 1925, A Dog’s Heart is a satirical parable, with multi-thematic surrealist abstractions, illustrating the provincial mores and malfeasance of the Soviet regime post Tsarist Russia. Mikhail Bulgakov’s opus was banned – soon after Stalin and his peccant automatons caught whiff of it – and remained banned until the early 1980s. Having realised that his work would be continuously censored and confiscated Bulgakov wrote a letter to the government requesting permission to emigrate but instead received a personal phone call from Stalin, which resulted in his employment as the assistant producer with the Moscow Arts Theatre. From there on in Bulgakov had a somewhat discombobulating relationship with the flagitious Soviet establishment and despite Stalin’s providential favour, which protected him from the Gulag Archipelago, his writings remained unpublished.
A Dog’s Heart is one of the most daring and imaginative attempts to satirise the Communist regime. The story follows Sharikh, a craven stray dog contemplating his impending death; only Sharikh is a canine quadruped unlike any other. His internal monologues reveal his ability to read and feel emotion on an anthropomorphic plane. He is, in fact, more humane than almost everyone he encounters until a kindly stranger proffers sausage and beckons him to follow in his wake. The stranger, Professor Philip Philoppovich Preobrazhensky, is a doctor, a self-confessed “enemy of unfounded hypotheses”, and a bourgeois of the highest rank with counter-revolutionary ideas and suppositious experimental theories. He is, in fact, the sum total of the old-world intelligentsia and Tsarist values, pompous, proud and indignant about the new regime and the emergent human being, one who is disconnected from the circumscriptions of ethics and culture and ruled by animalistic instinct. Upon his arrival home the Professor is asked by his assistant, Arnoldovitch Bromental, how he managed to tame such a nervy stray. Preobrazhensky replies: “With kindness, sir. The only method that’s possible when dealing with a living creature. You can’t do anything with an animal by terror, no matter what rung of development it stands on. I have asserted that, I do assert it and shall continue to assert it.”
It is at this point that Bulgakov begins to objurgate and challenge the probity of the Soviet government, saying: “They’re wrong to think that terror will help them.” But terror did help them as Bulgakov’s indictment against Bolshevism goes on to demonstrate. The select cast of the book is assembled to make certain points about the restructuring of Russian life into a Bolshevik framework and ideologies. Preobrazhensky, for example, represents all that Russia once was, while his work, particularly his pending experiment which involves transplanting male testicles and a pituitary gland into Sharikh, will become a paragon of the victory of boorishness and Russia’s evolution into a bellicose state. The body of the novel revolves around the idea that the transplant operation, lacking any chances of success, produces entirely unexpected results when Sharikh begins to transform into a man. One who is nothing like the “affectionate” Sharikh, but rather a personification of a lowly proletariat epitomising Stalin’s “man of the future”. Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, formerly known as Sharikh, looks likes “a fairground joke,” chases cats, pinches women’s bottoms, plays the balalaika with “fleshy dexterity” and guzzles vodka out of an aluminium cup. But more than that he hurls vitriolic “vulgar abuse” at the Professor and his assistant, refers to them as “bourgeois gits” and bleats uncontrollably to hilarious effect.
Within days, Sharikov turns the lives of those around him into a proverbial quagmire when he begins to behave as the “threateningly dangerous” head of the house and soon the good doctor loses his patience. Bulgakov balances political satire and humour with a tinge of the grotesque through a narrative of deadpan sincerity, which makes the novel both fantastical and fantastically real. He documents his hatred of totalitarianism with great skill. The brilliance of A Dog’s Heart is imbedded in the simple yet effective portraiture of the time and place in which it is set, without ever seeming too episodic or issue-driven. His point, however, is illustrated best in the words of Preobrazhensky himself, who at the very beginning believed in the humanitarian approach but toward the end shows himself to be a hypocrite. Affronted by Sharikov’s existence the Professor reprimands him for allowing himself “undue and utterly intolerable freedom” when he is merely a creature of “cosmic stupidity” on the “very lowest rung of development”. There is a very simple moral to the story here, in fact, there are several. And just as Preobrazhensky “sank the needle into the heart of the dog” Bulgakov too sinks one into the heart of the reader with this piercing and brilliant tale about freedom which in his time was, sadly, nothing more than a “smoke, a mirage, a fiction”.