Heart of a Dog (Mikhail Bulgakov)

Heart of a Dog is a novella by Mikhail Bulgakov. I read the English translation by Avril Pyman.
Finished on: 16.1.2020

Plot:
Professor Preobrazhensky finds a hurt dog on the streets of Moscow and takes it home. The dog quickly gets used to the good life he has as Sharik with the Professor, but the Professor and his assistant Doctor Bormenthal are actually working on a project – and for that project, they need the dog. When the circumstances are just right, the dog will be the subject of their experiment.

Heart of a Dog is a bit like a Russian take on Frankenstein, with a healthy dose of satire and criticism of the Soviet political system/Stalinism. I enjoyed it a lot.

The book cover showing a dog in a suit.

[Slight SPOILERS]

Given that my track record with Bulgakov in the shape of The Master and Margarita isn’t great, I was doubtful that I would come to enjoy Heart of a Dog, but I did. This time, the humor in the novella actually landed with me, but it was the not-so-funny things that really worked for me.

There are some parallels with Frankenstein – not only in the sense that (medical) experimentation is used to create a new human being, but especially in the way Preobrazhensky treats Sharik after the transformation. He doesn’t kick him out, but he does seem utterly disgusted with his creation. I can’t help but think that things would have turned out quite differently if Preobrazhensky had managed to find a little kindness for Sharik when he is human.

It’s interesting that he is quite fond of the dog, but doesn’t seem really fond of any human, especially not Sharik. I think it speaks to the fact that for many people it is easier to be kind to animals than to other humans. But even more fascinating is that you can read the novella in two opposite ways: one is that dogs simply are the better people and that Sharik is basically corrupted by becoming human. The other is that dogs are awful and if you give them human abilities, the result will be bad.

There is really no-one in this novella who gets off with a clean slate – and I think that is pretty indicative of what Bulgakov really thought of Soviet Russia at the time: everybody is to blame. In any case, there is a lot of social commentary and criticism here and that, to me, is always a good thing.

The translation was pretty nice. There are some interesting descriptions and beautiful phrases that makes me wonder what the Russian original is like to read. Maybe I’ll find out some day.

Summarizing: A really good read.

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