Mikhail Bulgakov was 33 years old, a former doctor and an up-and-coming playwright and short-story writer when he invited a group of people to a reading of his new novella, The Heart of a Dog. He had held a similar soiree the previous year to launch another novella, The Fatal Eggs, and though the earlier reading had gone well, it had made him anxious enough to muse in his diary: “Is it a satire? Or a provocative gesture? … I’m afraid that I might be hauled off … for all these heroic feats.”
His premonition proved right. Among the 50 or so people who gathered in the Moscow apartment in March 1925 to be introduced to Sharik, the humanoid dog, and the arrogant surgeon who created him, was an informer who took violent exception to his send-up of Soviet society. Bulgakov’s flat was searched and the manuscript seized. Though it was returned to him four years later, and was widely read in samizdat, it would not be officially published in Russian until 1987, nearly half a century after Bulgakov had died.
Sharik makes his first appearance as a mangy mongrel, cringing in a blizzard after being douched with boiling water by a cook. Out of a brightly lit shop walks a man (“definitely a citizen, not a comrade, or perhaps even – most likely – a gentleman”) with a nasty smell of hospital and cigars. Philip Philipovich also smells of the sausage he has just bought to lure Sharik back to his apartment, a seven-room suite in a building that has been requisitioned by a committee of zealous young revolutionaries.
This opening scene conveys so much about the early Soviet Union as Bulgakov saw it: the State Food Store selling cheap horsemeat sausage, the middle-aged professional “gentleman” hanging on to his privileges in an edifice that has been turned over to a proletarian command and which struggles to keep the boilers working and the galoshes from being stolen from the communal hallway.
Into the middle of it all bounds the cat-hating Sharik, who literally shatters the glass between the two orders of society before being hauled on to an operating table and subjected to Philip Philipovich’s latest experiment, described in gruesome medical detail: to see what happens when a dog is implanted with the testicles and pituitary glands of a human.
The creature that emerges from the operation walks on two legs, drinks, smokes, and is “familiar with every known Russian swearword”. Issued with identity papers in the name of Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov, he is placed “in charge of the Moscow Cleansing Department responsible for eliminating vagrant quadrupeds (cats, etc)”, but not before he has stolen from gentlemen and comrades alike, brought vagrants in from the street and attempted to have his wicked way with the women of the house while they slept.
A year before the fateful reading of The Heart of a Dog, Trotsky published an essay collection, Literature and Revolution, which argued for a people’s art capable of creating “a higher social biologic type, or … superman”.
But if Bulgakov the political commentator was sending up Soviet theories of human perfectibility though communism, Bulgakov the former physician was also poking fun at the western Europeans who were flocking to Paris-based celebrity quack Serge Voronoff in the belief that he could restore virility with an injection of monkey glands. These are the crumple-necked ladies, the men with green hair or heads as bald as dinner plates who Sharik woozily observes stripping off in Philipovich’s consulting room in the hope that their old money will buy them new vigour.
In Bulgakov’s own formulation, his novella is both satire and provocative gesture. Its genius is that its sights are multi-directional, so 92 years and many regime changes later it still seems freshly defiant.
It is also a riotous science-fiction comedy that anticipates the current vogue for political dystopias. It also harnesses the archetype of the overreaching scientist to the task of lampooning vanities that are too easily recognised in the age of cosmetic surgery and cryonics.
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