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[120] Heart of a Dog – Mikhail Bulgakov

Russian Reading Challenge #3

heartdog.jpg“My hypothesis is that the grafted hypophysis has opened a speech center in the canine brain, and words have burst out in a stream. In my view, what we see is a resuscitated and expanded brain, and not a newly created one…And another hypothesis: during his canine existence, Sharik’s [a common name for dog in Russia] brain accumulated a mass of concepts. All the words he used in the beginning were gutter words. He heard them and stored them in his brain. Now as I walk in the street, I look at dogs with secret horror. Who knows what is hidden in their heads?” (63)

Like any dogs in cold Moscow, a scroungy mongrel has made peace with his fate, taking life one day at a time. Shaggy, lanky, tattered and most of all hungry, this mutt, which suffers from a scalded wound on one side, is in sheer luck when a lordly benefactor gives him a piece of fine sausage and leads to his apartment. But we know there must be more to the story, as there is no free lunches. The quality of sumptuous diet, along with the pampering, warmth, and comfort are only measures to strengthen Sharik for an operation.

Professor Philip Philippovich implants human testicles and pituitary gland from a recently-dead twenty-eight-year-old man into a stray dog to determine viability of such transplant and its effect on rejuvenation of human organism. In defiance of expected fatal outcome, the dog survives and shows sign of resuscitation. The creature proceeds to become more and more human as time passes, in both physical appearance and in speech.

“His appearance is strange. The fur remains only on his head, chin and chest. The rest of his body is bald, with flabby skin. In the genital area–a maturing man. The skull has grown considerably larger. The forehead is low and slanting.” (59)

So the outcome of the implant is humanization instead of rejuvenation. The creature’s words are no longer dissociated from surrounding facts, but are a direct reaction to them. Finding a niche of his talents, he makes a career as the director of a purge sub-section under the Moscow Communal Property Administration–chasing after stray animals, mostly cats. While chasing after one at the professor’s house, he wreaks a havoc in the form of a flood after breaking a water pipe.

Interpreted as a satire on the Soviet utopian attempt to radically improve human nature by creating a New Soviet man, or an improved human species, Heart of a Dog bears analogies to Dr. Faustus, Frankenstein, and The Island of Dr. Moreau, but with an edge about a wry comment on scientist going too far. The historical prototype is a Russian-French surgeon, Serge Voronoff, who was known for his experiments on implanting humans with animal testicles and thyroid glands. Bulgakov satirizes the inconsistencies (and absurdities) of the system in which a man with a dog’s intelligence could become significant and influential. On the same note he praises the man who with his strong personalities and conviction could remain unaffected in the midst of insanity.

10 Responses

  1. Well, I shall definitely get hold of this book. Bulgakov has completely convinced me with The Master and Margarita!

  2. Echo from your quirky character post, this dog-turned-human character is pretty quirky and brazen. Bulgakov seems to be fond of animals which he allocates such important role in the novels. I’ll have to add this one to my list. Great review.

  3. Isn’t it a wild-ride-of-a-book? I remember really liking Heart of a Dog!

  4. A review to sharpen my appetite for more Bulgakov. You steered me right with The Master and Margarita, so I just ordered this title, and it will go to the top of my to-read list. Also, I decided to try McDuff’s translation of The Brothers Karamazov.

  5. Interesting plot.

    I might have to start looking for Bulgakov now!

  6. […] what really happened. The book also touches on the subject of dog mutilation that is reminiscent of Heart of a Dog but the extent with which this is explored is less daring and is more true-to-life. I can’t […]

  7. this is great. thanks for the article. i will link it to my serge voronoff archive, also at wordpress.

    a very strange and interesting movie.

  8. […] of a Dog From Mattviews WordPress Blog: Professor Philip Philippovich implants human testicles and pituitary gland from a recently-dead […]

  9. […] through the observation of their masters. Skimming through the book reveals some parallelism to Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov and evokes sweet memories of the narrating canine, Enzo, in The Art of Racing […]

  10. […] my all-time favorite, the comic but morally sublime The Master and Margarita and the sci-fiesque Heart of a Dog. White Guard is actually his first novel, and it is set against the era of chaos, violence, […]

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