Thursday, December 04, 2008

book review - Heart of a Dog

The concept of having literary heroes is not something that I have had before but if I had to choose then Mikhail Bulgakov would be mine. He not only managed to keep his integrity when plenty of those around him were losing theirs but kept writing when the pressure of the Stalinist system would have crushed most writers.

Add to that what he wrote and this is someone who deserves to be better read and as a result of these lovely editions from Hesperus might well be. You know that when you open a Bulgakov book you are going to be introduced into a story that will not only be a clear satirical attack on the communist system but will also be a very well crafted story.

Using his knowledge and experience as a medical student this story concentrates on a theme – rejuvenation – and takes it to a science fictionesque extreme. A professor that is managing to cling onto his former luxuries – like having an apartment with a decent set of rooms picks up a dog one night.

The story starts from the dog’s perspective and he reveals how a stray learns to identify certain places like the butchers based not just on small but the colour used in the state design of the shop logos.

That knowledge comes back later to echo but meanwhile there are a series of clients, some influential and able to protect the professor, traipsing through the clinic and having all sorts of implants from other animals to rejuvenate sex drive and performance.

The dog watches all of this with mild interest until the moment he becomes the focus of the operation. A criminal’s mind is put into the dog and the resulting creature, that does start to resemble a man, is to bring in all the brutish ugliness of Moscow into the professor’s protected world.

He drives the medic to distraction and just when you think he will kill him he reverses the operation and frightens the criminals friends of the dog away with their accusations of murder.

There are clear messages here about handing over power and responsibility to criminals that are not only unable to rejuvenate themselves but also fail to have a positive impact on their community.

Although the battles between the dog and the professor are about the right to tenancy writ large this is about ownership of the state and the Tsar has been replaced with the mind of a thug. In some respects the dog is an innocent victim as well because he is no more cut out for life as a human. Once a man he still chases and kills cats and cannot suppress his former self.

This is not just about the power and ambition of science with a Jekyll and Hyde type warning about the costs of pushing the boundaries. But it is also a lesson in political science with those that dabble with ignorance also likely to get burnt as a result.

There is clearly a moral at the end that the natural order will be restored and those that in their naivety thought they could improve on society by letting the communists in can easily switch them back off. Sadly that of course proved to be more of a fiction than Bulgakov would no doubt have liked.

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