Saturday, February 14, 2015

Heart of a Dog

Read Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (who I am embarrassed to admit I had never heard of before) for my European Novella class. Not the sort of thing I would usually read - its a sort of scifi satire of Soviet life in the 20's in which a professor, Phillip Phillopovich (I think that's how it was spelled) implants the pituitary gland of a dead man into the brain of a stray dog who proceeds to become human. The satire part is that the dog-man, named Sharikov, takes on the worst qualities of his dog self (attacking cats on sight, being aggressive toward most people) and the worst qualities of the human, a drunkard who had recently been in prison before his death in a bar fight - and these qualities make him quite well suited to the Soviet system of the time. He is eventually able to find employment as a cat-strangler (strays, of course) which are then made into cheap coats. Other Soviet officials are, quite correctly I imagine, depicted as cloying idiots with nothing better to do than sniff out anything that might be "counterrevolutionary".

So - is the book any good? Well, I liked it better than The Immoralist, I think, but that's not saying much. The main problem is that Sharikov's dog-self is much more interesting and sympathetic as a character than his human self - and also more interesting than any of the other characters - but he is cut out so the satire can begin about mid-way through the 121-page book. His man-self, as I think the Professor says, is basically a different person - insolent, crude, but more damningly, just not very enjoyable to read about. There is a rather long passage in which Sharikov has a row with the cat of a some old woman trying to get a look at him and ends up locking himself in the bathroom, breaking a pipe and flooding the professor's office (he's also a physician - this is an important plot point, because there is a scheming official who hates the Professor for his dislike of the Proletariat, but because the Prof. has many important officials as patients, he is untouchable). Anyway, the whole scene is supposed to illustrate just how much of a nuisance and an imbecile Sharikov is, but it just drags on and on, to the point my eyes started to glaze over. I don't know, though, how I would have handled it - obviously, his boorishness is the point - I just wish it was a more interesting boorishness.

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