Monday, 21 September 2009

Bulgakov: Master Satirist

Mikhail Bulgakov is one of the most overlooked Russian satirists/geniuses of the 20th century.

I’ve read two works of his now, and both have floored me with the scathing cleverness of their satire, the sheer originality of their ideas, and the fact that both these Russian texts – written during Stalin’s reign – are instantly accessible to the modern reader.

The Heart of a Dog (1925) is a short blast against the ‘New Soviet Man’ – a comment on the declining power of Communism and the changing tides in the Soviet power structure, which up until then, had been an excruciating series of proletarian rebellions and bourgeois sanctions.

Most importantly, though – the book is utterly hilarious. Narrated by Sharik, a stray dog hours from a chilly death on the streets of Moscow, the tale follows our mongrel hero through his rescue from the ‘mad Professor’ Preobrazhensky, his transformation from a dog into a man, to his life as an unruly proletarian scoundrel, mooching off his bourgeois masters.

The humour is mainly farcical – most certainly inspired by the work of
Nikolai Gogol, esp. his masterpiece The Overcoat. A metaphorical war between the classes ensues as Sharik tears the doctor’s flat apart, kills wandering tabbies, and lands a job for the Moscow Cleansing Department through a vengeful trade unionist seeking the haughty professor’s arrest.

Bulgakov, who spent most of his writing life as a dramatist, has a perfect ear for dialogue and captures the absurdities of his homeland with a sense of unfazed abandon. It is his fearlessness as a satirist that makes this novel such a pleasure to behold, and even more telling that it would take a further sixty-two years before this book was printed in the Soviet Union.

A man ahead of his time who defined his era so wonderfully. Read him.