Nataliya's Reviews > Heart of a Dog

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
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Jan 07, 14

bookshelves: russian-classics, my-childhood-bookshelves, excellent-reads, i-also-saw-the-film, stalinism-and-such, 2012-reads
Read from September 05 to 11, 2012

"The whole horror of the situation is that he now has a human heart, not a dog's heart. And about the rottenest heart in all creation!"


The recipe for success a la Bulgakov:

# Take a street dog, hungry and flea-ridden and wickedly smart (yes, he can even read - you gotta do that to survive on the cruel winter Moscow streets!).

# Take a brilliant and renown professor with a knack for brain surgery/transplants and desire to advance science.

# Add to the mix a dead good-for-nothing delinquent alcoholic's brain.

# Add the flavor of the Soviet mid-1920s, after the Socialist Revolution but still before the iron fist rule of Stalin's terror policy.

# Let Bulgakov's genius mix all of these ingredients together - and you will end up with a brilliantly written satirical fantastical commentary-on-contemporary-society laughter-through-tears piece of literary art that is Heart of the Dog.



Despite its short size, this book has endless layers. On the surface, it is a hilariously sad story about a science experiment gone very wrong in the direction that its creator did not quite anticipate, and all the funny antics of the newly created sorta-human Sharikov. Yes, that includes obsessive and funny cat-chasing even when the dog becomes "human".

On the other level, it is a cautionary warning about what happens when power falls in the hands of those who should not be allowed to yield it, and the dangers and pitfalls of the system that allows that to happen. Yes, that includes an easy step from killing cats to pointing guns at real people, and demanding sex in exchange for keeping a job, and of course the ultimate evil that was to penetrate the fabric of the years to come - writing denunciations for little else than petty personal gains.
"But just think, Philipp Philippovich, what he may turn into if that character Shvonder keeps on at him! I'm only just beginning to realize what Sharikov may become, by God!"

"Aha, so you realize now, do you? Well I realized it ten days after the operation. My only comfort is that Shvonder is the biggest fool of all. He doesn't realize that Sharikov is much more of a threat to him than he is to me. At the moment he's doing all he can to turn Sharikov against me, not realizing that if someone in their turn sets Sharikov against Shvonder himself, there'll soon be nothing left of Shvonder but the bones and the beak.
"


I do believe that this book should be used as an illustration of the whole "laughing through tears" concept. It's the epitome of that concept. At times sidesplittingly funny with some sad overtones, it quickly crosses the territory into the mostly sad and even scary, especially given the context of the events still to come to this world of Soviet Union in the mid-1920s. Yes, it's the Stalin era and the Purges and the labor camps and denunciations and mass trials of the "enemies of the people" that I'm talking about. For the characters of this book, these events are just a few years away.

Keeping this in mind, you quickly realize that Bulgakov's short novel has undoubtedly way more impact on its reader now than it did back in the mid-twenties when it was written. Back then it was sad and funny, and held a note of warning, and shed the uncomfortable light on the parts of the pre-Stalinist pre-Purges society that were already beginning to feel uncomfortable. However, it ended on a quasi-happy note, the futility of which had only become fully visible years later. And now, for the readers that have the benefit of knowing what history had in store just a few short years later for the likes of those "undesirable elements" described in this book, the impossibility of anything remotely good coming out of the whole situation and of the entire future for Bulgakov's characters becomes painfully clear.
'But Philipp Philippovich, you're a celebrity, a figure of world-wide importance, and just because of some, forgive the expression, son of a bitch… Surely they can't touch you!'
'All the same, I refuse to do it,' said Philipp Philippovich thoughtfully. He stopped and stared at the glass-fronted cabinet.
'But why?'
'Because you are not a figure of world importance.'
'But what…'
'Come now, you don't think I could let you take the rap while I shelter behind my world-wide reputation, do you? Really… I'm a Moscow University graduate, not a Sharikov.
'
C'mon, we all know that even world-class fame will never save Professor Preobrazhensky from Stalin's labor camps as eventually his higher-up protectors will themselves become victims of the new regime, and likely from a gunshot to the head in the middle of the night. And Bormental's fate will undoubtedly be very similar to that - just as Professor kinda-sorta anticipated already. After all, neither of them has made their unpopular views very secret.
'Yes, I don't like proletariat,' sadly agreed Philipp Philippovich."


Professor Preobrazhensky's clearly anti-socialist views definitely would not make his ultimate fate anticipated by the reader after the events of this story any easier. His grumpy views of a cultured and educated person who is baffled and annoyed with the "new" society of coarseness and rudeness and inefficiency and "class struggle" and the undeserved in his opinion entitleness of those who perceive themselves as the oppressed working class and whom Professor in turn perceives as lazy and irresponsible people. And among the rambles of the old and annoyed man there may or may not be a grain of truth. Judge for yourself:
'What do you mean by "ruin"? Is it an old woman with a stick? A witch who smashed all the windows and put out all the lights? There's no such thing! What do you mean by that word?' Philipp Philippovich angrily inquired of an unfortunate cardboard duck hanging upside down by the sideboard, then answered the question himself. 'I'll tell you what it is: If instead of operating every evening I were to start a glee club in my apartment, that would mean that I was on the road to "ruin". If when I go to the lavatory I don't piss, if you'll excuse the expression, into the bowl but on to the floor instead and if Zina and Darya Petrovna were to do the same thing, the lavatory would be ruined. Ruin, therefore, is not caused by lavatories but it's something that starts in people's heads. So when these clowns start shouting “Stop the ruin!” – I laugh!'
.........................

But there is much more to this book than just the condemnation of the system. Had it been only that, it would have become quite dated quite soon. No, just like in Bulgakov's other works, it has a commentary on the state of humanity as a whole, on what makes us truly human versus merely humanoid. It is about the importance of morals and values, the etiquette and politeness and respect that make us really human, and moreso, civilized humans.
'I'm sorry, professor, not a dog. This happened when he was a man. That's the trouble.'

'Because he talked?' asked Philipp Philippovich. 'That doesn't mean he was a man.
"
And this respect for culture and etiquette and civility is what permeates the message of this book. This respect for what Bulgakov sees as the essentials of being human are precisely what puts him in the conflict with his contemporary Soviet state that believed in intimidation and terror as the viable way of governing and existing - the principles that newly formed humanoid Sharikov is very eager to learn and internalize. And neither Bulgakov nor Professor Preobrazhensky or Bormental are having that.
"Kindness. The only possible method when dealing with a living creature. You'll get nowhere with an animal if you use terror, no matter what its level of development may be. That I have maintained, do maintain and always will maintain. People who think you can use terror are quite wrong. No, no, terror is useless, whatever its colour – white, red or even brown! Terror completely paralyses the nervous system."

"Nobody should be whipped. Remember that, once and for all. Neither man nor animal can be influenced by anything but suggestion.
"


Well, my review is getting long and I have nothing but the praise for this book. So I will wrap up with the highest possible recommendation for any fans of Bulgakov or, really, any fans of well-written literature. 5 stars.
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Reading Progress

09/09/2012
15.0% 3 comments
09/11/2012
40.0% 2 comments
09/11/2012
100.0% "Just think - all the horror is that he no longer has the heart of a dog but precisely a human heart. And the most rotten one in nature."

Comments (showing 1-24 of 24) (24 new)

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message 1: by Brian (new)

Brian Yet again, another outstanding review. Thanks for taking the time to give us your insight, Nataliya.


Nataliya Brian wrote: "Yet again, another outstanding review. Thanks for taking the time to give us your insight, Nataliya."

Thank you for the kind words, Brian! My pleasure.


message 3: by Moira (new) - added it

Moira Russell I really love your reviews.


message 4: by B0nnie (new) - added it

B0nnie You are a witch Nataliya, doing all these magical reviews. I learn so much from them, thank you!


Kris So beautiful and true, Nataliya. I love your decision to include the passage on kindness. I am looking forward to this discussion in TM&M group - I just have to make it through today and tomorrow.....


Nataliya Kris wrote: "So beautiful and true, Nataliya. I love your decision to include the passage on kindness. I am looking forward to this discussion in TM&M group - I just have to make it through today and tomorrow....."

Thanks, Kris! I actually thought that the passage on kindness was one of the most important ideas of this book - and the one that went so against the laws of Bulgakov's state at the time. Kindness if the universal human value, and we cannot be human without it.

B0nnie wrote: "You are a witch Nataliya, doing all these magical reviews. I learn so much from them, thank you!"

Thanks, Bonnie! Witch-wise - well, Granny Weatherwax and Hermione Granger are among my favorite heroines for a reason ;)

Moira wrote: "I really love your reviews."

Thanks, Moira!


message 7: by Linda (new)

Linda Sounds really interesting! Thanks for a good review!


Nataliya Linda wrote: "Sounds really interesting! Thanks for a good review!"

You're welcome, Linda. It is a fascinating book in my opinion.


Jenni Just finished reading this book and I LOVED it! Your review made me appreciate it all the more. Much thanks!!


Nataliya Jenni wrote: "Just finished reading this book and I LOVED it! Your review made me appreciate it all the more. Much thanks!!"

You are very much welcome, Jenni! I read your review and I loved it.


Nilesh Kashyap It's nice to read your review after I have finished the book. Love the different interpretations of the novel, especially looking beyond political message into human aspect. Great review!
Btw your last update and opening line of this review are same line but different translation. I read Michael Glenny translation, which you have used in your review and I didn't like it much. From which translation did you made the last update.


Nataliya The last update was my own very quick attempt at translating that line. I found Glenny's translation later and thought that he did a better job than I did at least with that part. I realized that I kept running into trouble trying to translate certain passages from this book (I usually do it myself every time I read a Russian book in the original) because of all the nuances and very Russian way of expressing certain things that Bulgakov constantly employs here.


Nilesh Kashyap I was asking because I liked your translation of that line more than Glenny's, I was hoping you would say Mirra Ginsburg. Did you like Glenny's translation of the passage you have used here?


Nataliya I thought it was more concise than mine, and more to the point. That's why I liked it. But of course I have not had the benefit (or the chore) to read the entire translation, just bits and pieces of the parts that I knew I wanted to quote (at this point I know this book so well that I can easily find the parts I need in any translation).

But the parts that I used were a bit wooden, in all honesty. They have not managed to capture Bulgakov's charm, but they were still better than what I was coming up with. I heard Ginsburg is an excellent translator, so there are chances that she did a better job with this book than Glenny.


Nilesh Kashyap Kris and Mary, both read Ginsburg translation and gave 5-stars. My 4-stars are probably result of Glenny's translation or my less no-knowledge of soviet Russia. As for Ginsburg, I will be reading her translation of 'We' next week.
If I got it right from reviews, this novel is satire of 1917 revolution and what followed after. Also why does proletarians are not looked highly upon in this novel?


message 16: by Nataliya (last edited Sep 19, 2012 12:15PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nataliya Nilesh wrote: "If I got it right from reviews, this novel is satire of 1917 revolution and what followed after. Also why does proletarians are not looked highly upon in this novel?"

I'm assuming you're referring to "Heart of a Dog" and not "We" (which is an amzing book, by the way, and I just may have to reread it again!)
The proletarians are not highly regarded because of Bulgakov's dislike of what the cult of proletarianism was supposed to represent in this 'new' country - the worship of the uncultured, barely literate, entitled, dismissive of anythign 'old' including culture. That's how, it appears, Bulgakov was viewing it. It was hard to maintain the romanticized view of the 'masses' that the early revolutionaries held when you saw what was actually happening. The Soviet idea of proletarianism was taken to the extreme, so to say.


Nilesh Kashyap Yes, I was referring to 'Heart of a Dog'. And I think, I will have to read about Soviet Russia before I start Master & Margarita.
Is theme of 'We' also based around the same issue?


Nataliya Nilesh wrote: "Yes, I was referring to 'Heart of a Dog'. And I think, I will have to read about Soviet Russia before I start Master & Margarita.
Is theme of 'We' also based around the same issue?"


"We" is a dystopian novel, written about a society that got rid of individualism, where societal needs trump everything. So in a way, that is a stab at the state-run state-centered utopia that was populized by the socialist system. I find it much better than the similar in intention books like "Brave New World" or "1984". However, it is yet another book which I've never read in translation, only in its original Russian.


Nilesh Kashyap I forgot to ask one thing, what does "From Granada to Seville..." mean? And what does it signify being said by professor every now and then?


Nataliya Nilesh wrote: "I forgot to ask one thing, what does "From Granada to Seville..." mean? And what does it signify being said by professor every now and then?"

"От Севильи до Гренады в тихом сумраке ночей" is a line from a romance song by Alexei Tolstoy. I'm assuming that the professor signing it from time to time means that (a) he's a romantic at heart, and an educated one at that, and (b) it's his version of a nervous tic, almost. I think it's characteristic of Preobrazhensky to be humming this song instead of something folksy or, for instance, one of the popular thief/sailor songs of the era, sung usually by uncultured and rough people - another way to distance him from the 'proletariat', perhaps?


message 21: by AH (new)

AH You always seem to review such interesting books.


Nataliya AH wrote: "You always seem to review such interesting books."

Thanks, AH!


Aksana B I obviously didn't need a review to read this book, but as soon as I finished it, I was curious to see what people think about it.

Such good review !!! 5+


Nataliya Aksana wrote: "I obviously didn't need a review to read this book, but as soon as I finished it, I was curious to see what people think about it.

Such good review !!! 5+"


Thanks, Aksana!


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