Tuesday, December 30, 2008

book review - The Fatal Eggs

As might have become clear over the past year Mikhail Bulgakov is one of my favourite authors and this slime volume is a cracker.

It works on many different levels. On one level it is about science fiction with a professor discovering, quite by chance, a ray of life that gives growth and multiples the sizes of cells. But on the other it is a satire on the Soviet system.

The combination of the two produces a chilling end to a story that in the first half has an almost comical feel to it. Having discovered his ray of life the professor is still operating in his own world unaware of a plague that has wiped out the Russian chicken population.

However armed with the knowledge of the professor’s discovery and an ambition to climb up the party apparatus an official gets the backing to commandeer the ray of life and turn it to repopulating the chickens that have been wiped out due to the plague.

At the same time the professor, without the ray of life, has returned to his first love of reptiles and has placed an order for an assortment of eggs including crocodiles, snakes and alligators so he can hatch them and study them at his institute.

Of course it is those eggs that end up in the hands of the keen bureaucrat with terrifying consequences. The moment a 30 foot snake swallows the bureaucrats head any sense of humour disappears and as the country battles to stave off the attack from giant reptiles the professor eventually becomes the focus of the anger of the masses and pays for his discovery with his life.

What you take away from this book that feels in many respects like Heart of a Dog is that science and the state don’t mix too well. Of course that was one of the guiding principles of Stalinism that the state could harness the power of science and use things like the ray of life to overtake enemies and rivals.

But there is also a clear dig at the basic mechanics of the state with the chicken eggs going to the professor and the reptile eggs going to the chicken farm. How could that sort of elementary mistake happen in a perfectly run society? Of course the consequences of the cock-up can be measured in hundreds of deaths and maybe that last thought is the most powerful one.

In a country where people in their hundreds of thousands were sent into the gulag system the idea of pen pushing murderers is neither that far from reality or particularly funny. The fact that Bulgakov is able to attack them and undermine them in such a short number of pages is a testament to his satirical brilliance and his skill as a writer.

1 comment:

Rob said...

I read this a few years back, and remember it being rather fun. Particularly the notion of a Russian writing Soviet-paranoia sci-fi, as opposed to the Americans doing it...

Perhaps my favourite of his was Black Snow, though.