“The more I learn of men, the more I like my dog.”
Frederick the Great
Heart of a Dog was written in 1925 by Bulgakov, author of The Master and Margarita, but wasn’t published in Russia until the 1980s. No wonder – if it had been, that would have been the end of Mikhail! The main problem with this book is that it is so short! Yes, short and and with a terrific punch, but a little longer would have been so much fun! The satire is furious and ferocious!
The first part of the story is mostly told from the point of view of the dog, Sharik (a dog’s name, like Spot), a street mangy mutt. Dogs are smarter than we know – he can read a bit, understands Russian, and has his own limited philosophy of life. He’s taken in by a famous medical doctor who has been doing some shady experiments rejuvenating people’s sexual powers with unusual operations.
While growing fat and healthy away from the perils of the street, Sharik regards the good doctor as the Godhead from whom all good tasting things come. He is fitted with a collar and taken for walks, resenting the implications of servitude at first, but quickly noting that to be collared by such fine people is a mark of status. “Why, a collar is the same as a briefcase,” he quips to himself. Good dog!
The doctor’s coup is to transform Sharik into a man by transplanting the pituatary gland and testicles of a dead criminal into his body. The transformation happens pretty quickly – does the man who results have the heart of a dog, or are men really dogs at heart? – and it inflicts on the bourgeois doctor his own version of Frankenstein’s torment. What has he created? A vile, swearing, brutish, partisan of the proletariat who rants about Lenin and Engels at him over dinner. The dog is more radical than they are: “Just count everything and divide it up!” The doctor orders his maid to burn the copy of Engels that Sharik brought into his house – a dangerous move in those days.
This is the USSR c. 1925 – peoples’ cooperatives are everywhere. The doctor is not a sympathizer. His “social origins” are not of the best. What of Sharik’s? However would one explain them? There is the constant problem of proper documents. Sharik adopts the name of Polygraph Polygraphovitch Sharik, and wants to get dutifully registered with the authorities. The governing committee of the apartment block has questions for the doctor: Why does he live alone in seven rooms? Who is this Sharik person – an illegitimate son? Awful rumours fly, the doctor’s practice is disrupted, his life becomes a living hell. Sharik gains a livelihood as the head of the unit that catches and destroys stray cats in Moscow, and he seems to fit right in. The new Soviet man? He smells abominably. The dog must go!
There is a very good film adaptation of the novel, discussed briefly here.