Stalin has fallen victim to some of the best satire. Animal Farm is seminal, but the lesser known Heart of a Dog by Bulgakov is a no lesser mockery of the Soviet Union post-revolution. The regime at that time has still not matured, and Stalin was still an enigmatic and respected figure. Still, Bulgakov captured the absurdities of the regime and by doing so, shot his literary career right on the foot.
If we look at it this way, the Heart of a Dog is as much a brave book as it is reckless. Bulgakov has written satirical and critical writings before this and managed to get away with it. During that time the censors were still lax, which propelled him to write more absurdist satires. Bulgakov’s background as a former physician with bourgeois parents made him a target, and the Heart of a Dog proved to be his last published novel in his lifetime. While Orwell had the luxury of being an Englishman not residing in Soviet Union, Bulgakov was right in the thick of the regime.
But what got the censors so pissed off? Bulgakov made a mockery of life under the regime portraying the people as the mangy dog, begging in the streets, scalded by boiling water by no-good chefs. They are left to die in the streets out in the cold, hungry. The dog is the proletariat — uneducated, desperate and victimised. A professor came, symbolising the Soviet regime, ready to look after the proletariat, but at some point in time, to run experiments on him — communism.
The dog became a bastardised creation, unable to fit in anywhere and instead of building a utopia to prove the professor’s ideas instead became an abomination. The dog is a failed experiment, which implies that communism is a failed experiment. Perhaps Bulgakov saw the Soviet proletariat as the butt of a joke in Marx and Engels’ footnote. No wonder the regime didn’t take too kindly to the book at the time it was published.
But outside of the symbolism that we get out of the satire, the Heart of a Dog is truly a funny book. It is a loathsome book because of its absurd and self-interested characters. Still, like any book that has passed the test of time and censors, there is a charm that you can find in these characters. For example, the professor tried his best to protect Sharikov from Bormenthal when he tries to beat him (at least until he stopped caring). We can relate with his exhaustion. Bormenthal himself is unquestionably loyal and sincere to the Professor. And in regard to Sharikov, I sympathise with him, being the victim of a failed experiment, inheriting the balls of an alcoholic and consequently becoming so.
Bulgakov’s prevalent theme is the state of housing during these times, where the authorities are able to assign square meters to inhabitants of a building, and to take them away when they want to. Philipovich’s battle with Shvonder, the head of the house committee and his cronies (including a girl who pretends to be a man) is hilarious, but never betrays the serious undertones of someone battling for his rights, selfish though these rights may be. Philipovich was already privileged in his reputation but tried to push the envelope by trying hard to hold to his seven rooms, including a dining room and a servant room. It was almost unrealistic that the housing committee did not report him as a traitor to the regime. But then again, the book is about a dog turning to a man.
Philipovich is based on an infamous French-Russo surgeon, Serge Voronoff who ran his own practice similar to the professor, trying to rejuvenate rich people by untried and unsafe methods. Instead of replacing the patient’s testicles with a dog’s, he used those of a monkey to enhance virility. Youth always sells. Thankfully, science has come a long way since then. You can read about Voronoff’s story here, which is almost as bizarre as Bulgakov’s creation.
But enjoy the book for what it is — a cynical yet hilarious book, written from the point of view of a dog cum man, or at least, the resemblance of him. It is absurdist, nonsensical, but it is regardless wonderful fiction.