Heart of a Dog, encore

February 26, 2010

This Russian film adaptation of Bugakov’s Heart of a Dog is really quite wonderful.  It faithfully presents the book, almost word for word it seems, and adds a few scenes for context and emphasis that are not in the novel.  At first, it seemed a bit tedious, too faithful to the text, but once Sharikov, the dog-become-man, starts wreaking havoc with the settled life of the good doctor, it’s great.  In fact, I think that the movie enhances the novel in some ways, using costumes and sound to sharpen the satirical jabs at class conflict comedy in the young Soviet state.

In the image above, we see the doctor, a bourgeois Frankenstein, having a heart-to-heart with his creation, who has taken the full name, Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov.  Sometimes a dog has wisdom to impart to a graduate of Moscow University, if only he would listen!

Like any good citizen, Sharikov needs his papers to be in order.  You must be ‘registered’ to live in Moscow!  But once he is registered, he is subject to conscription in the militia.  Sharikov, with the heart of a dog and the soul of a street hoodlum, has no interest in fighting.  The house tenant director tells him, ” You are lacking in political consciousness, comrade!”  What’s a dog, er man, to do.  On one side, harried by stuffed shirts who live “like they are always on parade,” and on the other, slogan-spouting party politicals.

In the end,  the doctor has had enough, so he and his assistant fix things up.  Everything is returned to its natural order, and peace reigns once again in the doctor’s flat.  Man and dog are happy.

Moscow – 1920s

February 6, 2010

“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.

The Master and Margarita

January 31, 2010

Begun by Bulgakov in the late 1920s, it was written and re-written during the 1930s, at the height of  the Stalinist repression.  A full Russian version was only published in the early 70s, thirty years after the author’s death.  It is a fantasy, a fable, an hilarious satire, a protest, a mystical reverie, and a lot more, no doubt.  It is certainly not easy to categorize.  Would such a book have achieved its notoriety if it had been written in, say, the USA?  No – part of its tremendous appeal is that it is the veritable anti-novel, the anti-dote, to the time and place in which it was written.

The story is centered on a visit by Satan to Moscow to get a Queen to preside over his annual ball, or maybe just to have some fun.  The devil is an affable fellow, rather clever and slick, and his assistants are colorful clowns.  The most amusing is an enormous black tomcat given to ironic and satirical jibes.  They wreak havoc amongst the stuffy Soviet toadies and functionaries they encounter, and they retrieve Margarita to preside over Satan’s grand ball.

Interwoven with this tale of witchcraft and demonic mischief is a story of the confrontation of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.  The story is the novel written by The Master, Margarita’s lover, but it is also an historical narrative that has separate status.  There any many hooks on which to hang allegorical and satirical interpretations, but the novel is remarkable in what it most emphatically does not do – it does not present a simple rejection of the horrible system under which its author was living.  Simply by being written, a story that treats the New Testament as something other than a fairy tale and lie, by celebrating hedonistic and individualistic pleasure, and of course, by making fun of bureaucrats, it is a such a total rejection.  There was no need to shove it into the faces of its readers.

Some contemporary Russian illustrations for the novel: