The New Observer Book Reviews,Reviews Heart of a Dog – Bulgakov. [REVIEW]

Heart of a Dog – Bulgakov. [REVIEW]

I’ve just read the Random House (Vintage Classics) translation of this work.

Bulgakov wrote Heart of a Dog in 1925. It was seized by the secret police and not published until long after his death – in the period of Glasnost. This book, according to the introduction, marked the start of Bulgakov’s harsh treatment by the Bolsheviks. All his life Bulgakov struggled to get any works produced. Many of his plays were banned. His major work, The Master and Margarita, was also not published until after his death, (though in this case in 1966 – after the Khrushchev ‘thaw’). It is a miracle that he wasn’t sent to the Gulag. (This is said to have been down to Stalin’s personal support for him).

The plot of Heart of a Dog is that a stray dog was operated on by a Professor who was interested in conducting physiological experiments. The operation turned the dog into a low-grade human – a hooligan. The dog/man behaves in a disgusting way causing huge difficulties for his world-famous professor-creator who eventually turns him back into a dog. It transpires during the story that the dog/man owes his hooligan qualities to the fact that the transplant organ was taken from someone who was a hooligan. The new being is a hooligan because, despite all the science and cleverness in his creation, he came from a hooligan.  The plot seems to be a satire on the kind of social engineering which the Bolsheviks believed in. Bulgakov is saying that no good can come of it. You cannot socially engineer good people.

The professor-creator enjoys a 7 room flat and a privileged existence (something which was just still possible during the years of the New Economic Policy). There are a few successful jibes at his privileged life but the majority of the book mocks the Bolsheviks.

The satire on the Bolsheviks is very funny. The young members of the Housing Committee who try to force the professor to share his rooms are amusingly portrayed. There are some very amusing asides as for example when the Professor and his Doctor assistant are talking about some reactionary ideas and say naively “I hope no one can overhear us”.

The main thread of the book appears to be to completely denounce the idea of social engineering. If you put the brain (a pituitary gland in the story) of a hooligan into an animal he will remain a hooligan no matter how much socialist education he receives. This is a message which appears to be a more or less undiluted statement of the kind of pre-revolution White ideology – the workers are uncouth and this is how they are. There is no point changing the social order. You cannot socially engineer good people – all you can do is sit back and allow nature to take its course – geniuses will arise in the natural order of things and most people are trash. The book (far more than The Master and Margarita) is far more clearly anti-Bolshevik. By unequivocally denouncing Bolshevik social engineering Bulgakov seems, by default at least, to support a social system of privilege. The Bolshevik secret police were probably humourless enough to block the book because of its humour against the Bolsheviks. But in any event they would have had to seize it as being a pure statement against the revolution and in favour (apparently) of the pre-revolutionary status quo.

This is a great book. A neat piece of satire. Very well executed. But this reviewer was surprised and a little disappointed to see such an apparent dismissal of the possibility of improving society through political education of the masses. Certainly Lenin’s utopian project ended badly. And indeed Bulgakov correctly predicts how the Bolsheviks will in due course turn on themselves. But the apparent rejection of even an idea of social reform and the apparent statement in support of a class society makes this book an acquired taste.

Heart of a Dog. Mikhail Bulgakov. Translated by: Michael Glenny. Published:  Vintage 2005.