the discomfort of reading (Bulgakov’s ‘Heart of a Dog’)

‘The whole horror of the situation is that he now has a human heart, not a dog’s heart. And about the rottenest heart in all creation!’

he mark of Mikhail Bulgakov laid bare in a single excerpt — confusion, surrealism and absolute catastrophe.

I first became aware of Bulgakov’s writing for somewhat baseless and embarrassing reasons. In the third year of my English literature undergraduate degree, I sought respite from the world of Franz Kafka and the unrelenting existential crisis of bureaucracy. As anyone would. In doing so, I would often find that a way to overcome writer’s block — or any kind of staleness associated with reading — would be to find novels of a wildly different genre. It was as if I believed that in choosing something vastly dissimilar to what I had become used to, my eyes would fizz about in their sockets and re-energise my brain with pure excitement. Finally, something new — not another tale about how terrible our lives may be.

This mood would always engender a feeling of individual responsibility — I must be the one to choose the novel. I couldn’t rely on reviews or recommendations, I had to feel that it was right.

I can only vaguely remember what had initially drawn me to Bulgakov — a gleaming yellow cover page embossed with the hulking figure of a cat digging it’s claws into the side of the moon. The feline’s body — dramatic to say the least — refigured the moon into a dull, grey football. Tracing my eyes down the body and curled tail of the cat, I arrive at the title: The Master and Margarita. How curious. As bold a title as I might have ever seen — I became filled with intrigue, is this ginormous cat the Master? Or could it be Margarita?

To my even greater enjoyment, the cat is neither — his name is Behemoth.

The Master and Margarita is considered Bulgakov’s magnum opus — perhaps because he spent his entire life revising and perfecting it — and rightly so. The tale is as unnerving as it is comedic. At once it urges you to consider the inevitability of injustice and deconstructs the Socialist Realism genre perpetuated by the Soviet Union.

Somehow, this tale concerned with the merits of both religious and literary freedom simultaneously overwhelms the fantastical sense of the reader — a novel so heavy with political and religious commentary exquisitely blindsides you into a world of magic and the surreal.

Years later, after being reminded of Bulgakov, I searched for my copy of the text. Unfortunately, over the years of moving, it had become lost — which is my way of saying that I’m fairly irresponsible with my belongings.

At the end of my Master’s degree, I became imbued with that once powerful feeling of desire — I am now free from the constraints of literary criticism. I can finally read for leisure again.

I’m not entirely sure why, but my first thought brought me back to Bulgakov. I desired escapism and yet did not feel the chains of political satire slacken. This lead me to Bulgakov’s surrealist nightmare: The Heart of a Dog.

Like The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov’s The Heart of a Dog is satiric of the Soviet Union. This time, former surgeon Bulgakov considers the USSR’s obsession with eugenics.

The Heart of a Dog opens from the perspective of a stray dog — later named Sharik by his would-be adopter — searching for food amongst the back-alleys of a restaurant. A scolded and scarred Sharik is discovered by a surgeon, Philip Philipovich Preobrazhensky. Philip takes Sharik back to his home, luring the hungry canine with expensive sausage. Unbeknownst to the stray dog, Philip intends to perform surgery on his new companion.

Emerging from this narrative is the Soviet Frankenstein — a ghastly creature occupying the space of both man and dog, yet simultaneously transcending the dichotomous relationship between the two.

A tale at once hauntingly dark and abruptly comedic. I wouldn’t want to spoil anything about the novella as I greatly encourage you to read it — but I put the novella down with a sense of discomfort. I couldn’t fully understand Bulgakov in the same way I had with The Master and Margarita.

I felt alienated — removed from my own existence and suspended in a place of peculiarity. What I believed had been intended solely as a critique of hypocrisy within the Stalinist regime had departed with a reimagining of what it meant to be human.

I gained pleasure and humour at the expense of Preobrazhensky’s abduction and mutilation of a lonely stray. Perhaps what Bulgakov had initially intended — a critique of the Soviet Union — fell somewhat short. As amused as I was by the tale, I couldn’t help put the book down and consider the moral ambivalence permeating class division.

It often concerns me that a novel can bring as much pain as it can pleasure — comedic tales like Bulgakov’s are no exception. His prose brought me laughter, as it often does, yet underneath that layer of surrealistic whimsy is an undercutting tone of vulgarity and brutishness.

All that being said, I couldn’t recommend Bulgakov’s work highly enough. I often feel that discomfort is as integral of a tool as engagement is. To inspire such a feeling of alienation is paramount to a reader’s experience.

24 year old postgraduate experimenting with writing styles

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