It’s one of those enduring literary mysteries: why didn’t Joseph Stalin have Mikhail Bulgakov bumped off? True, few of Bulgakov’s works saw the light of day in his own lifetime, but that could hardly have been a help to the writer, particularly one who so fearlessly – or recklessly – paraded the absurdities of communist rule. One of the stories here – which have been translated into English for the first time (very well, as far as I can tell, by Roger Cockrell) – mocks the Bolsheviks’ well-intentioned policy of educating the masses by having a soldier tell us what he thinks of a performance of Verdi’s opera La Traviata he is forced to attend (he would rather have gone to the circus). For a start, he is puzzled by the conductor:
Then this director opened some book in front of him, looked at it and started waving his white stick about ... And, indeed, this director seemed far from being the least-educated person in the place, because he was doing two things at once: reading his book and waving his stick about.
The normal procedure for a Russian writer who wanted to ridicule the system was, first of all, to get the hell out of the Soviet Union.
Bulgakov is best known for his longer, more fable-like works The Master and Margarita and The Fatal Eggs (whose title, you will learn from the long, informative afterword to Notes on a Cuff, contains a multi-layered pun so untranslatable you wonder how much of its essence can survive in English). These stories, however, were written beforehand, in the early 1920s; and, with one or two exceptions, there is little impulse to fabulism or (to use the term loosely) surrealism. Things were weird enough as they were, and all Bulgakov had to do was draw on his own experiences as a doctor and literary administrator. A recurring theme in this volume sees a medic doing his best to escape whichever local Russian conflict (there were plenty to choose from at the time) he is about to be dragged into. Stuffing a revolver into your pocket and running sometimes seems to be the wisest course of action, as is making sure there’s one remaining bullet, so that if you are captured, you can use it on yourself.
The remarkable thing about Bulgakov is that he manages to maintain a certain ironic distance in his narratives that doesn’t diminish at all the urgency or veracity of what he has to report. It reads as though he’s in a rush to get it all down, but he does so in a way that reflects the absurd black comedy of each situation. And thus Bulgakov invents his own avant-gardism: as if there is either no time for or no point to the literary conventions. “The Unusual Adventures of a Doctor” sends its narrator across the war-torn Russian continent. Chapter 5 of the story consists of nothing more than two lines of dots across the page; chapter 6 is subtitled “Artillery Barrage and Boots”, but has no more text; and the first chapter is subtitled “No Title – Just a Howl”. When the narrator sees, through his binoculars, a bentwood chair sitting on its own on top of a hill, he says, referring to the manufacturer: “The Zeiss is hallucinating!” It is the kind of detail, you feel, that could only have come from lived experience.
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