Friday, December 02, 2005

Book Report: "Heart of a Dog," By Mikhail Bulgakov

SAN DIEGO – the scribe just finished reading Mikhail Bulgakov’s “Heart of a Dog” and, as promised in the review of Italo Svevo’s book (“Emilio’s Carnival,” Nov. 17), will now tell you a little about it.

For starters, "Heart Of A Dog"was recommended by Omar Torrez, the ultraflash guitar wiz with whom the scribe will do a recitation of passages to his novel, “Vedette” on Dec. 15, 8 p.m. at 33 1/3 Books & Gallery Collective, in L.A. (Call 213-483-3100) for info.

Omar has just returned from a small tour in Russia to which he is wed both through a personal fascination, and through the woman he has chosen to live his life with. the scribe thought the guitarist might be interested in working on a reading when he saw him at Pastis in L.A. where he mentioned Bulgakov, which is not a very common occurrence in these here parts.

Torrez’ new album, “Dynamisto” has a song called “Dog Heart,” based on the book.

“Moaning, howling,
my dog heart is growling,
darling, play your
requiem for me...”

That verse is something of a send-up on the opening pages of the (short) book in which the author does a very good job of explaining things from a stray dog’s perspective.

Here’s the very first of it:

“Whoo-oo-oo-oo-hooh-hoo-oo! Oh look at me, I am perishing in this gateway. The blizzard roars a prayer for the dying, and I howl with it. I am finished, finished. That bastard in the dirty cap – the cook of the Normal Diet Cafeteria for employees of the People’s Central Economic Soviet – threw boiling water at me and scalded my left side. The scum, and he calls himself a proletarian! Lord, oh lord, how it hurts! My side is cooked to the bone. And now I howl and howl, but what’s the good of howling?”

Get it?

“Moaning, howling,
my dog heart is growling,
darling, play your
requiem for me...”

One of the most delightful aspects of Bulgakov’s work, which was banned until well after his death, is the success with which he presents the workings and concerns of a dog’s mind.

Here’s how the dog learned to hunt for food in post-revolutionary Moscow without a proper education and reading lessons:

“After that, his learning proceeded by leaps and bounds. He learned the letter ‘t’ from ‘Fish Trust’ on the corner of Mokhovaya, and then the letter ‘s’ (it was handier for him to approach the store from the tail end of the word, because of the militiaman who stood near the beginning of ‘Fish’).

“Tile squares set into corner houses in Moscow always and inevitably meant ‘cheese.’ A black samovar faucet over the word indicated the former owner of Chichkin’s, piles of red Holland cheese, beastly salesmen who hated dogs, sawdust on the floor, and that most disgusting, evil-smelling Beckstein.

“If somebody was playing an accordion, which was not much better than ‘Celeste Aida,’ and there was a smell of frankfurters, the first letters on the white signs very conveniently added up to the words ‘no inde...,’ which meant ‘no indecent language and not tips.’ In such places there were occasional messy brawls and people got hit in the face with fists, and sometimes with napkins or boots.

“If there were stale hams hanging in a window and tangerines on the sill, it meant... Grr.... grr... groceries. And if there were dark bottles with a vile liquid, it meant...Wshi-w-i-wines...The former Yeliseyev Brothers.”

You get the idea. The charm of “Heart of a Dog” lies in the simple sci-fantasy chosen by the author to regale us with true portraiture of life in the time and place with which it concerns itself, without ever appearing episodic, preachy, or issue-driven.

The four paragraphs abstracted above move the story along, maintaining the humor (and pathos) involved in mapping a dog’s mind, but also telling us something of the moment’s popular music, of the behavior that could be witnessed on the city streets, and rendering a street economy that one would assume is a thing of the past.

But the story, in the end, is not entitled “Mind of Dog.” It is “Heart of a Dog,” and soon we move beyond the concerns of the canine, to those of the larger cast assembled by the author to make certain points about the reorganization of Russian life into soviet structures and concepts.

Truly revolutionary.

The dog is taken in off the street by Doctor Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky who, even in the leveling times he was tapped to live, is a man of prestige and means.

“Heart of a Dog,” falls clearly into the category of satire and, as such, spares no one.

Preobrazhensky is up to no good with some scary eugenic operations that are enhancing the vitality and sexual capacity for some of Moscow’s wealthier denizens. When the communist housing committee comes to bust his chops about the size of his apartment and the new times which the doctor must reconcile himself to, he makes a call to one of his patients, influential in the recently imposed Bolshevik order, that results in the committee delegates leaving his place with tails between their legs.

But Philip Philipovich’s time will come.

The dog, whom he and his helper Bormenthal have dubbed “Sharik” is startled from the peaceful life in the too-big-apartment he could hardly believe luck had placed him, to have the brain stem of a deceased common criminal grafted onto his own.

The experiment goes awry and Sharik slowly morphs into a man; a complicated man with opinions, desires, and an appetite for cats - a man with a dog’s heart that the doctors Preobrazhensky and Bormenthal are ill-equipped to control.

He smokes, has no sense of social correctness, hits on the resident young girl Zina, and has a wise-guy’s mouth to boot. “An exceptional scoundrel,” in Preobrazhensky’s words.

Disdained and pushed to the margins by the bourgeois technicians who created him, Sharik does what came naturally to people (or dogs) in those days. He becomes a communist and gets “papers” attesting to his officially recognized existence as Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharik.

He gets a good job in the municipal department, purging cats, and finally forces the hand of Philip Philippovich by again springing the local aparatchiks on him over the size of his apartment and the way its space is apportioned.

Pushed to the brink, the doctors do something to Sharik, it is not clear what, that returns him to the state of grateful mongrel in which he originally entered the premises.

We can view this story as a commentary on the open-ended fear the aspirations of science and modernity imposed upon people at the turn of the last century. It can also be savored as a parable on Soviet life as it seemed shortly after the revolution.

Okay, the scribe doesn’t really know what a parable is, he just wanted to sound lit-critical for a second.

Perhaps the better expression is “analogy” or even, “metaphor.” the scribe thinks that these words along with ‘simile’ and a few others only serve to slice the same ham a lot of thin ways and that they should come up with a better, all purpose, word to meet the utilitarian tone of our times.

In any case, it’s clear Bulgakov had an ironic view of the Bolshevik order and the underlying idea of sweeping away all that had come before to replace it with something more egalitarian. We don’t get a sense he was against it on principles, rather that he was mortified by what happened when it was applied to a giant and backward czarist peasant state.

the scribe’s sense is that he is saying a dog’s a dog, and a prole’s a prole, regardless of what rational experiment, social or scientific, you expose them, too.

There will always be, Bulgakov seems to be saying, complicated matters of the heart that surpass the grasp of even our most enlightened and talented citizens.

Post-revolutionary Russia is now a ways off. We do not know what song the doctor is always singing, “from Granada to Seville...” and so we miss its cultural significance and what it means to come out of Preobrazhensky’s mouth as well.

Still, the literature transports us.

The version read by the scribe (Grove Press) is translated by Mirra Ginsburg. Translations are always tricky. We can only hope they approximate what the original language was cleverly employed to convey. Ginsburg recreates an over-the-top type of nineteenth century idiom in the tone of, let’s say, G.K. Chesterton (“The Club of Queer Trades”).

“My good sir, I will not be made a guy of with this preposterous...”

Maybe, hopefully, that is what Bulgakov had in mind. To be sure, the high-flown pompousness of his hosts certainly contrasts with the low-flung desires and needs of the proletarian dog.



Anonymous said...

Bravo! A very good understanding of the book, one of my favorits...

highwayscribery said...

Thanks, Masha.