December 17, 2013

All Who Wander: "Heart of a Dog" by Mikhail Bulgakov

Title, by Author

(In the final months of 2013 and throughout 2014, CCLaP cultural essayist Madeleine Maccar is looking at the classic definition of the "hero's journey," as seen through a series of international texts that she is reading in English translation. For all the essays in this series, please click here.)

Heart of a Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov

Heart of a Dog
By Mikhail Bulgakov
Grove Press
Review by Madeleine Maccar

I have been itching for an excuse to read more of Mikhail Bulgakov's brainchildren since my encounter last year with the excoriating metaphorical diatribe that is The Master and Margarita; having recently adopted a lovable rescue mutt, it seemed like an opportune time to sink my teeth into Heart of a Dog, the tale of Sharik, a stray who was rescued from death's door by a Soviet scientist, nursed back to health, and subject to an experiment that was intended as a victory for eugenics but resulted in the down-on-his-luck dog becoming an odious little man who's the focal point in Bukhail's scathing mockery of communism.

It is my dog-happy mindset that made me immediately sympathize with Sharik, whose pathetic likability waned far more slowly for me than it perhaps ought to have. Sharik begins as a nameless, homeless mongrel of indeterminate lineage whose nasty run-in with a local cook's vat of steaming water left him with a side covered in life-threatening burns where his fur used to be. As he lay hopeless and despairing of his future, all too aware that his condition during another brutal Russian winter would most likely result in a fatal bout of pneumonia, good fortune visited him at the last minute in the form of a scientist, Professor Preobrazhensky, who wins the dog's loyalty with some food and a warm home. What ensues is a tale of Frankensteinian proportions: Once Sharik is acceptably healed, Preobrazhensky surgically swaps the dog's canine testicles and pituitary gland with those of a fresh human cadaver, yielding the unexpected results of "a resuscitated and expanded brain, and not a newly created one," a full-on cur-to-cad transformation. Sharik takes on the repugnant physical appearance and belligerent nature of his human organ donor, the latter of which mixes unpleasantly with the canine nature Sharik can't fully shed.

Sharik isn't the most lovable pup in literature, as even before the not entirely humanitarian rescue that he believes will herald the beginning of his coddled existence as a gentleman's dog, Sharik proves himself to have a touch of the self-delusional self-aggrandizement to which lesser men with no real distinction other than being dealt a lucky hand are prone, telling himself that the professor is a man of refined tastes who wouldn't bring home just any stray. What's more, Sharik's gratitude for his supposed guardian angel manifests itself as a groveling loyalty that should have grown with every savory morsel the good professor fed him but, instead, takes the form of the tantrums of the entitled, as Sharik foreshadows the physical destruction and unpleasant situations he'll later bring on a larger scale as Comrade Polygraph Polygraphovich Sharikov with doggie tantrums like maliciously tearing apart a prized stuffed owl and wreaking general havoc on both the apartment and the individuals whom the professor employs. Blessed with nothing more than being an otherwise unlucky mutt who found himself in Professor Preobrazhensky's path at the exact right time, Sharik can't take much credit for his rescue and what the professor assumes will most likely result as a sacrifice to the greater good of scientific curiosity, as Preobrazhensky states multiple times that he doesn't expect the unsuspecting mutt to survive the never-before-attempted surgery that lies ahead.

It is the very haplessness that wrenches Sharik from his canine world into the unfamiliar human realm that perhaps makes him less of an anti-hero and more of an accidental one. Sure, Sharik is short on courage, selflessness and respectability (not to mention that he is brimming over with Bulhakov's intent for him to be a skewering of the ideal New Soviet Man for which the writer had naught else but contempt), but, really, he never asked to have the hero's journey thrust upon him in the first place--his greatest aspirations were to have a full belly and not to shuffle off the mortal coil prematurely. When Sharik follows the good professor home, he does so under the spell of the sausage that Preobrazhensky feeds him, with no idea or inkling of a future more demanding than life as a gentleman's pet. Sharik has his base desires satisfied quite nicely because of a stranger's intervention; it is with that same lack of power over his own fate that Sharik is offered seemingly otherworldly aid, is hoisted over the threshold of transformation, confronts death, undergoes a literal and sweeping change that leads to the rather remarkable deterioration of any good qualities he possessed as a dog, and ultimately returns to his original mutt form, but he misses that crucial morally transformative stage of atonement and personal reflection, which is the singular element of a hero's journey that the journeyman must undertake entirely of his own volition.

One could argue that perhaps a character whose writer created him as nothing more than a satirical outlet for lambasting a much-maligned system can never rise to hero status at all, that perhaps Professor Preobrazhensky is really the unsung hero of Bulgakov's short novel. Like Dr. Frankenstein before him, Preobrazhensky experiences the slow dawning of horror over what he has wrought and how he must take responsibility for his out-of-control creation--a creation that, despite the good intentions that fueled the creator's pursuit of uncharted scientific territory, is ultimately shaped by the societal ugliness it has faced (in Sharik's case, life as a stray has shown him little else beyond how uncaring the world can be to an unfortunate creature it regards as a nuisance, so it's only natural that communism's division of goods would appeal to a creature who never had the means to obtain the things he needs). The professor's aim was to find the betterment of mankind in a laboratory; realizing that the donor glands in Sharik's operation were from a louse of a man whose ill temper got himself killed in a barroom knife fight, he accepts that generations of women have naturally birthed countless geniuses against the odds, rendering his pursuits meaningless. Preobrazhensky even ventures the atonement Sharik doesn't stop to consider by surgically returning the vile Sharikov to his much less morally reprehensible canine state; however, the book's final image of the restored dog looking on as his master plunges a gloved hand into a jar of brains more than suggests that maybe the professor hasn't learned his lesson after all.

Heart of a Dog offers up Sharik as a painful lesson that a man is more than the sum of his parts, a cautionary tale that it is dangerous to assume a man can be the product of artificial nomenclature and forced ideals. Being a dog forced into the unnatural packaging and mechanisms of a man, Sharik is darkly humorous proof that while it doesn't take a traditional hero to follow the arc of a hero's journey, it does take experience, compassion, and not living as a slave to one's animalistic id to come back from such an adventure as a well-rounded, respectable human being.

Filed by Madeleine Maccar at 6:22 AM, December 17, 2013. Filed under: Literature | Literature:Fiction | Madeleine Maccar | Reviews |