Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov

by Kristopher Cook
Time to Read: 3 minutes

The book borders on the edge of Science-Fiction much in the way Flowers for Algernon does; grounded in reality with over-the-top scientific experiments, in this case, transplanting human testicles onto that of a dog.

Surgery of this kind is supposed to give the dog, Sharik, a form of human testosterone, thus creating more humanised elements to his behaviour. However, it transforms way beyond, providing the stray hound with the ability to think like a human being, as well as talk like one.

A Little History

When first offered for publication in 1925 it was rejected, partly due to Lev Kamenev, who was a leading party official at the time. The manuscript was later confiscated from Bulgakov by the Soviet Union secret police, although Maxim Gorky intervened and it was returned to its own some four years later.

Regardless, it took until 1987 before it was printed in Soviet Russia – though in English it was published in 1968 by Harvill Press.

Provocative would be the ideal word to describe this book. From the very beginning, it’s clear that the author is looking to draw you into his world, chew you up, and spit you back out. Poor immigrants and malnourished dogs all roaming the dreary socialist state, the tone doesn’t get any lighter.

Sharik the homeless wonder

“Subject of experiment: Male dog aged approx. 2 years. Breed: Mongrel. Name: ‘Sharik’. Coat sparse, in tufts, brownish with traces of singeing. Tail the colour of baked milk. On right flank traces of healed second-degree burn.”

We’re first introduced to Sharik wondering the Siberian city looking for scraps of food, fighting for his survival. He passes by an older gentleman, Philip Philipovich, a surgeon who operates out of his apartment in the middle of Moscow.

‘By kindness. The only possible method when dealing with a living creature. You’ll get nowhere with an animal if you use terror, no matter what its level of development may be.

Mikhail Bulgakov, Chapter 2

With the lure of prime meat sausages, Sharik is taken in by the man but soon becomes the guinea-pig to his crazy ideas.

In the seven-room apartment, that happens to be full of Soviet revolutionaries, the plan is put into full swing when one of the occupants brings in a dead ‘passer-by’ who’s primed to be the kind donor for the fanatical trial.

As Sharik begins to transform, first walking on two legs and then producing full sentences, so does his attitude towards others, most notably cats.

There are several instances where he either goes out of his way to harm felines, or he attacks them without any consideration for whom or what is around him. These outbursts often lead to dismay for his owner Philipovich.

This is another interesting point to bring up if Phillip Philipovich helped to create Sharik into the animal he is now, is he still his owner, or because Sharik now has his own free-thinking is he no longer bound by these bonds?

‘That’s your problem,’ said Shvonder with quiet malice. ‘It’s up to you to decide whether he was born or not … It was your experiment, professor, and you brought citizen Sharikov into the world.’

Mikhail Bulgakov, Chapter 5

On the one hand, he still looks like a dog, is unable to adequately provide for himself and still holds a few of his doggie-traits, such as chasing after cats, but on the other, he has the ability to capture information around him and form his own opinions.

The book is very much a dark comedy that borders on a sci-fi dystopia, both confrontational and engaging.

On one side, the mad scientist; willing to risk his livelihood to achieve his scientific dreams. On the other side; the human-hound with his overly-political theories on what’s right and wrong.

Closing Thoughts

Heart of a Dog is a fascinating read from start to end. As the book is only 123 pages (paperback), it can be consumed in one sitting, should you desire. This keeps the story tight, the characters in check, and the punch more pronounced.

There’s excellent satire describing the Soviet state and how Bulgakov felt about the repression of freedom within these times.

In addition, medical details are described in all their gruesome details, adding to the overall ‘yucky’ appeal of the book.

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References

Cornwell, N., & Christian, N. (1998). Reference guide to Russian Literature. London: Fitzroy Dearborn publ.

Britannica, T. E. of E. (2019, August 20). Lev Kamenev. Retrieved from https://www.britannica.com/biography/Lev-Kamenev

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