Not as sweet as it sounds

The Heart of a Dog
by Mikhail Bulgakov
translated from Russian by Michael Glenny

This book was selected for our local book group, partly because most of us had never read any of “the Russians”. Including me, unless Nabokov counts (I’ve only read Lolita, which he wrote in English, and he left Russia when he was 18 so it’s a bit tenuous).

I’ve always wanted to explore this group of authors but didn’t know where to start. The Heart of a Dog was probably a good choice in that it’s short and easy to read, but it’s crammed full of analogies to history and politics that I suspect I’m not familiar enough with to get the most out of it. I did study the Russian Revolution as part of A-level history but that was a few years ago now and I had rubbish teachers.

The story is a combination of the real setting of Moscow in 1924–25 and the surreal. Rich, successful Professor Preobrazhensky appears to be protected from the ravages of the Party by his specialism – STDs and “sexual rejuvenation” – and when he first picks up a scarred, mistreated stray dog and takes him back to a plush apartment it seems like a sweet friendship is developing. But the professor has more sinister reasons for adding to his household and the Party sees an opportunity to hold the rich man to account for continuing to have more rooms and more money than anyone else in the building.

A lot of the book is narrated by the dog, which sounds bizarre but is actually very well done. Bulgakov uses humour and empathy to create a novel viewpoint of the poorest of the poor. I liked the logic given for the dog being able to understand most of what is said around him and the way he loyally repeated his master’s political views without understanding them. When the surreal part of the story takes over and switches to a conventional third-person narrative, I found it harder to connect with the characters I had previously liked immensely. I began questioning my previous judgement and was uncertain I liked where the plot was going. But although the undercurrent is one of fear, this book doesn’t get too dark or scary.

I liked how, as the book went on, the descriptions of the professor’s assistant, Dr Bormenthal, get increasingly canine, referring to him as loyal and faithful and having been rescued from poverty by the professor, just like the dog. I also found the book genuinely funny, much of it mocking the Party, so I was not surprised to learn that the manuscript was confiscated from Bulgakov and not published until after his death.

For such a short book, this book was able to generate a reasonable amount of discussion in our group. We talked about whether you can enjoy this as a story without worrying about analogies and historical context, what that professor character was really up to, where Bulgakov’s sympathies lay, the development of the dog character and particular moments and phrases that stood out for us. It was postulated that the distancing of the narration was a deliberate ploy to make the reader look more analytically at the characters. That made a lot of sense to me.

I’m not sure I would ever had read this book without the book club so thanks Bedminster Bugbear for choosing it!

First published (in this translation) in Great Britain in 1968 by The Harvill Press.