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The Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov
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The Heart of a Dog (original 1925; edition 1997)

by Mikhail Bulgakov, Michael Glenny

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1,984373,402 (3.84)1 / 78
Member:varwenea
Title:The Heart of a Dog
Authors:Mikhail Bulgakov
Other authors:Michael Glenny
Info:Harvill Press (1997), Paperback
Collections:Your library, Fiction
Rating:****
Tags:None

Work details

Heart of a Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov (1925)

  1. 30
    The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (Daimyo)
  2. 10
    Lives of the Monster Dogs by Kirsten Bakis (knomad)
  3. 00
    The Island of Dr. Moreau by H. G. Wells (Michael.Rimmer)
  4. 00
    Sirius: A Fantasy of Love and Discord by Olaf Stapledon (Michael.Rimmer)
    Michael.Rimmer: Both feature dogs endowed with human intelligence, though they seem to inhabit different ends of the moral spectrum.
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English (31)  Italian (2)  French (2)  Spanish (1)  Dutch (1)  All (37)
Showing 1-5 of 31 (next | show all)
My favourite kind of satire is not laugh-out-loud funny; it's unsettling, and disturbing, and beautifully weird. Bulgakov brings it, with this short and vicious fable about a dog who is implanted with the genitals and pituitary gland of a deceased convict, transforming him into a bestial hybrid. It's like reading an early-Soviet Chris Morris script – in fact, what this book made me think of more than anything was this creepy sketch from Blue Jam. Bulgakov seems to offer a similarly discomfiting blend of verbal dexterity, incisiveness, shock value, and utter disregard for the negative repercussions of his work, which in Bulgakov's case could have been of the most severe kind.

I wonder if I would have got as much out of this if I hadn't read it soon after finishing a big history of the Russian Revolution, whose hypocrisies are so unerringly skewered here. The extravagantly detailed and gory scene in which the dog is operated on brings home the nature of the Soviet ‘experiment’ (which its leaders really did see in explicitly scientific terms) in a visceral new way. And the characters are no simple allegories; the doctor, Preobrazhensky (perhaps partly modelled on Pavlov), may in some way symbolise the Bolshevik leaders in that scene, but at other times he is a sympathetic model of liberal Tsarist Russia. Writing after waves of Red Terror and White Terror had bled the countryside, Bulgakov gives his learned protagonist a pointed speech on the subject of ‘kindness to animals’, which is, he says,

‘The only possible way to deal with a living creature. Terror's useless for dealing with an animal, whatever level of development it might be at. I've always said that, I still say it and I always will. They're wrong to think that terror will do them any good. No sir, no sir, it won't, no matter what colour it is: white, red or even brown!’

The man-hound himself, Sharikov, with his barking voice and rough hair, is an unforgettable creation – the joke being that his appalling manners and rock-bottom intelligence win him an enthusiastic welcome in the Party. He ends up as head of a sub-department and possible member of the Cheka secret police. (His name, Sharikov, comes from the stereotypical Russian dog's name ‘Sharik’; it thus means something like Roverson or McFido.)

Ultimately, the gruesome experiment does not work, and Preobrazhensky's reflection on it all again takes on the most direct political connotations.

‘Science does not yet know any way of turning animals into human beings. This was my attempt, but an unsuccessful one, as you can see. He spoke for a while and then began to revert to his original primitive condition.’

As a comment on the uprising of a people – He spoke for a while and then began to revert to his original primitive condition – I found this breathtaking in its curt derision. The target, of course, is not the people themselves, but their mendacious leaders. No wonder the Soviets banned the book on sight in 1925, and it wasn't actually published, anywhere, until 1987 (just ten years before that Blue Jam sketch was broadcast!).

There are several translations of this available, and not being a Russian reader, I compared a few of them before I ordered my copy. Unfortunately, I got confused by all the different Amazon "Look Inside" tabs I had open at the same time, and ordered the wrong one. I ended up with Andrew Bromfield's version published by Penguin, which, OK, is perfectly serviceable. Here's an example of it, from the first few pages, moving from the dog's internal monologue to a description of a nearby typist:

Wasn't getting in his way, was I? Not going to eat the entire National Economic Council into ruin if I have a rummage in the rubbish tip, am I? Rotten stingy swine! Just take a look at that fat ugly mug of his some time: wider across than it is long. A real brazen-faced thief. […] The dry blizzard witch rattled the gates and swiped her broomstick across the young woman's ear. Tossed her skirt up to her knees, exposing the cream stockings and a narrow strip of badly laundered underwear, choked off her words and smothered the dog in snow.

The only part of this that doesn't work is the ‘dry blizzard witch’, clearly a little personification in the original Russian which just seems confusing in this translation. Otherwise it reads OK, and as it was done in 2007 it should at least benefit from more recent scholarship than the other two I looked at. Vintage publish the Michael Glenny version from 1968, which I prefer in many ways (this is actually the one I meant to buy):

What harm was I doing him, anyway? I'm not robbing the National Economic Council's food supply if I go foraging in their dustbins, am I? Greedy pig! Just take a look at his ugly mug – it's almost fatter than he is. Hard-faced crook. […] The terrible snowstorm howled around the doorway, buffeting the girl's ears. It blew her skirt up to her knees, showing her fawn stockings and a little strip of badly washed lace underwear, drowned her words and covered the dog in snow.

‘Fatter than he is’ seems wrong, based on the other two, but dropping the witch business and just talking about a ‘terrible snowstorm’ makes for a much more natural-sounding English style. Meanwhile in the US, the most common translation seems to be the Mirra Ginsburg one published by Grove Press, which in my opinion is rather poor.

What harm did I do him? Would the People's Economic Soviet get any poorer if I rooted in the garbage heap? The greedy brute! Take a look at that mug of his sometimes—it's wider than it's long. A crook with a brass jowl. […] The wind, that raging witch, rattled the gate and boxed the young lady on the ear with its broom. It blew up her skirt above her knees, baring the cream-colored stockings and a narrow strip of the poorly laundered lace panties. It drowned out her words and swept across the dog.

‘The wind, that raging witch’ is a decent solution to the personification problem. But to my ear, this has several other problems. ‘Sometimes’ should surely read ‘sometime’; ‘up’ should be placed after ‘her skirt’, not before; and ‘a crook with a brass jowl’ is just dreadful.

Anyway, your mileage may vary. But whichever translation you pick, find a way to get your canines into this, pronto. ( )
1 vote Widsith | Oct 28, 2016 |
It'd be fun to compare this to Kafka's Metamorphosis! Prague vs. Moscow. Bulgakov's book is riotous satire. Probably most of it went flying right by me. But for a picture of Soviet urban life in 1925, this book is fresh and vivid. Perhaps the fact that the antagonist was a transformed dog gave Bulgakov license to express bold criticism that otherwise would have been too dangerous.

Grand fun and great political satire, whatever the logic behind it! ( )
  kukulaj | Oct 4, 2016 |
CAUTION: MAY CONTAIN SPOILERS

Philip Philippovich Preobrezhensky is a world-renowned physician who transplants human seminal vesicles and pituitary glands into a stray dog to create a new human species. Although the subject lives, his operation is fraught with disaster as the new creature wreaks havoc on Philippovich's household and Moscow. In the end, Philippovich reverses the surgery and returns the creature back to its former state as a harmless dog.

Philip Philippovich longs to do something amazing, something that will add immeasurably to knowledge of the human body and perhaps create new life. He has a medical practice in Moscow where he treats patients who are willing to do anything he asks of them. He has a younger doctor on his staff, Dr. Ivan Arnoldovich Bormenthal, who worships him and does anything Philippovich asks. Philippovich also has a cook, Darya Petrovna, and a maid named Zina.

One day, Philippovich finds a stray dog in Moscow, and he brings the dog home and names him Sharik. He helps the dog to get healthy and strong in preparation for the surgery to transform it into a new creature. A twenty-five-year old man named Klim Grigorievich Chugunkin dies in a bar fight, and Bormenthal obtains his pituitary gland and seminal vesicles for the operation. The dog survives the operation, and Sharikov is born. The change from dog to human is gradual, but before long he is a full-grown man with some of the instincts of a dog. Unfortunately, however, Sharikov maintains the persona of Klim, who was a thief, a liar, and a scoundrel.

The relationship between Philippovich and Sharikov is quickly strained. Philippovich is already upset about the political changes in Moscow, and the Soviet-sympathizing Sharikov nearly drives him insane. When Sharikov begins stealing in order to obtain alcohol, Philippovich doesn't know what to do about him. A member of the house committee gets Sharikov a job, purging the streets of Moscow of stray cats. Sharikov lies to a young lady to get her to move in with him, and Philippovich decides that it's time to fix the problem.

He reverses the surgery, and Sharikov eventually turns back into the harmless stray dog Sharik. Sharik knows that the doctors have done something to his head, which aches in cold weather, but he forgives them and feels utterly grateful for a good home. ( )
  bostonwendym | Jul 12, 2016 |
Great novella! It was a great comedy, until it got sad. Loved the comment on human nature towards the end, and especially loved how they solved the problem of Sharikov. I didn't think any of that would end well.

I had been putting off reading Heart of a Dog for years, as I loved Master and Margarita so much that I knew anything else by Bulgakov would be disappointing. This is just a novella, and isn't nearly as ambitious, but it's still a pretty funny story that reflects the time period in which it was written very well.

I read the Grove Press edition, which... I think was translated and typeset in 1968. It would have benefited from the same type of treatment as the annotated Master and Margarita, or even a few footnotes that pointed out historical or cultural references. Having just read a little bit about early 20th century Russian history, I picked up on some of it, but exactly how Bulgakov was lampooning the times would have been great. ( )
  ConnieJo | Jan 24, 2016 |
One of my least favorite clichés in science fiction is man going "too far" with scientific advancement, with some new technology or process causing unintended horrors. Oryx & Crake, Jurassic Park, Where Late the Sweet Birds Sang, and of course The Island of Dr. Moreau (as well as many others) tell stories of artificial biological manipulation going terribly wrong, and the foolish message each of the works contains always rubbed me the wrong way. Despite having the same tired "scientist doing something because he can without thinking of whether he should" idea, Heart of a Dog isn't dragged down by it, as Bulgakov puts meaning into the story beyond just an author railing against new things.

In this Frankenstein story the subject of the experiment is a dog whose experience living on the streets of Moscow was probably my favorite piece of writing in the book- you feel the poverty and corruption, and general terribleness of life in Soviet Russia at that time. Taken in by the famous scientist Philip Philipovich to be a subject of an experiment and named Sharikov, the dog gets to see how the wealthy live, in stark contrast to his life before. It's not all easy for the good doctor, though, as a housing committee is pressuring him to give up some of his spacious apartments. To maintain his luxuries Philipovich acts as a mad-scientist for hire, performing rejuvenation procedures on high officials, willing to do whatever it takes to enable his client’s vices and thereby maintain his own comfort in a Moscow where comfort is getting harder and harder to afford. There is no spirit of communism in this Russia- those who are well-off take action to keep what they have, and those who aren’t well-off try to exert pressure to take from those who have a disproportionate amount. One is more equitable, neither is pure hearted.

Philipovich attempts a daring operation that has the unintended result of turning the stray dog into a man by implanting testicles and the pituitary gland- man being nothing but a lusting beast. The resulting "man" is a brute, though he couldn't very well be a saint in the Moscow of this era- everything is poverty and the struggle to survive for the poor, and corruption for the rich. Still, he's even more reprehensible than most, developing some of the absolutely worst features of a human, to the extent that eventually Philipovich and his assistant reverse the procedure.

Everything in this short book reveals the doomed nature of the soviet state, from the living conditions of the populace to the corrupted bureaucracy. The transformation of Sharikov seems to be more than a tale of the follies of eugenics, he seems symbolic of the creation of the soviet state: educated men create it without thinking through all the consequences, and then are surprised by its failure due to the base instincts of man. Even the small things are an indictment of communism, such as the scene where Philipovich laments that the revolution has brought changes like the loss of minor comforts- carpeting on the stairs, flowers in the hall, the courtesy to take your dirty shoes off when you go into someone’s apartment- the absence of which doesn’t hurt anyone. I'm not suggesting that Philipovich is supposed to be purely sympathetic, here, but Bulgakov puts a lot of anti-communist ideas in his mouth and doesn't have anyone refute them. The resolution suggests that the only way for the educated men to become healthy again is to do away with their creation, and, while the end is a disturbing scene, it seems the best out of a lot of bad possibilities.

Bulgakov gives the story of a scientist trying "to force the pace and lift the veil" of nature much more depth than a screed against scientific advancement, he makes it symbolic of the entirety of the Russian Revolution and the resulting state. Science fiction fans (of which I am one) oftentimes like to think that the genre uses its trappings to say something about society and the world- unfortunately, works of science fiction rarely do something so interesting. Heart of a Dog, however, does. It's amazing that Bulgakov got away with such a satire, but I'm glad he did. ( )
  BayardUS | Jan 10, 2016 |
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» Add other authors (111 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Mikhail Bulgakovprimary authorall editionscalculated
Aplin, HughTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bromfield, AndrewTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Fondse, MarkoTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Ginsburg, MirraTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Glenny, MichaelTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Henstra, FrisoCover artistsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
McMillan, RoyNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Melander, VivecaTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Reschke, ThomasTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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Whoo-oo-oo-oo-hooh-hoo-oo! Oh, look at me, I am perishing in this gateway.
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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0802150594, Paperback)

This early novella from Mikhail Bulgakov, published in 1925, already shows the surreal comic genius that later produced The Master and Margarita, the writer's masterpiece. A kind of Frankenstein parable, Heart of a Dog is the story of a stray dog that gains a human intelligence after a prominent Moscow professor transplants human glands into the unfortunate canine's body.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:36 -0400)

(see all 3 descriptions)

This hilarious, brilliantly inventive novel by the author of The Master and Margarita tells the story of a scroungy Moscow mongrel named Sharik. Thanks to the skills of a renowned Soviet scientist and the transplanted pituitary gland and testes of a petty criminal, Sharik is transformed into a lecherous, vulgar man who spouts Engels and inevitably finds his niche in the bureaucracy as the government official in charge of purging the city of cats.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

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