Book Review: Heart Of A Dog

Heart Of A Dog, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I am of mixed feelings about this book, about as mixed as the mutt at the heart of this strange and compelling story.  On the one hand, the author as usual has written an amazing and compelling story that uses a diary of sorts to show for the passage of time, which appears to be one of his characteristic techniques in his novellas.  In addition to this, the book happens to be a brutal takedown of Communist ideology by putting in the most unappealing way possible, literally considering it bestial.  It is little wonder, therefore, that this book was not published until 1987 in the Soviet Union, because had it been published it is likely that Bulgakov would have quickly met his end in one of Stalin’s purges as a counterrevolutionary.  On the other hand, this is not a perfect book, largely because the whole premise of the plot hangs on something that relies on a particular view of evolution that is even more preposterous than most forms of evolution [1], because it requires a particularly serious form of saltationism for the plot to work and I am simply not willing to buy the premise.

At the heart of this story are two characters about which the reader is likely to have a great deal of sympathy.  On the one hand, there is a dog whose interior life the author gives us a surprising look at both at the beginning and the end of the story.  This dog is a friendly but very skittish mutt who likes food and is deeply afraid that other people want to hurt him–he is someone who the audience can look at with compassion, being an animal with a tough life story.  On the other hand, there is Philip Philippovich, an esteemed doctor of counterrevolutionary political views whose skill as a physician manages to keep him one step or so ahead of the purges and brutal conditions of his time.  The two of them share an interesting bond that proves something in the doctor’s mind at least but ends up being a disaster because it is easier to engage in rampant genetic engineering of a particularly unseemly kind than it is to raise and encourage people to think and act wisely and with compassion and understanding towards others.  The result is a sudden and somewhat surprising end that prematurely ends the career of a would be political commissioner with an interest in the stray cat problem.

If one does not want to see this as either a laughable political fable or as an ode to nonexistent evolutionary possibilities, both interpretations of which are likely to be common ones, there are at least a few other ways that this short novel can be viewed that are profitable.  For one, the author takes a dim view of the possibilities of human improvement due to culture and education, seeing heredity as all-important. This has some negative sides, as it can lead to a sense of snobbery by those who feel proud about their heredity and it makes any move towards a more egalitarian or just future an act of war not only against an entrenched social and political system but also something that can be judged as against science.  For another, there is a great deal of nonsense in this book about the rapid and drastic changes that can take place because of small surgical procedures, something that would be the envy of any origin-of-life or evo-devo researcher.  This is a book whose enjoyment depends at least on part of how plausible the reader takes its licenses with the truth, but it deserves praise for its opposition to Communism even if the book is a highly problematic one overall.

[1] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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