Book Review: Morphine

Morphine, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I must admit that I have not been as familiar with the works of Bulgakov as I have with other Russian writers.  A friend of mine recommended him as an author and I have to agree that after reading this short story published on its own despite being only about 50 pages long that I plan on reading a lot more by the author.  Even in translation there is something exceptional about this work–and no doubt I would think him an even better author in his native Russian.  The author was not only a novelist but also a physician and this novel gives a chilling tale of addiction [1] that is far scarier than the campy films that are produced to discourage drug use in afternoon specials.  Given the short length of this story, the book is one that suggests the power of the novelist rather than giving it in full glory, but it also shows an author in command of his work and aware of how long he needs to tell the story he sets out to tell, without any additional puffery to make it look longer to impress others.  There are plenty of contemporary writers who would do well to follow the author’s example, and it is to his credit that this author does not act as if he is being paid by the word.

The story itself is told as a frame story.  Dr. Bromgard is an ambitious doctor who has moved from a rural district to a small town with hopes and ambitions of being a doctor in a large Russian city when he receives word that a former colleague of his, Dr. Polyakov, has fallen deeply sick.  Prevented by the harsh Russian weather from leaving as early as he would like, he finds Polyakov brought to him with a mortal gunshot wound.  Receive the diary of his dead comrade, Bromgard becomes the first reader and eventual publisher of a tale of descent into morphine addiction that is deeply chilling but told in a clinical fashion.  Included is the paranoia of the addict about how others view him (or her), the feeling that one is in control until one has slipped dangerously out of control, the way that addicts attempt to reduce the suspicion that others would have and the way that addicts often depend on people to serve as enablers of their addiction and find it unable to go cold turkey if and when drug supplies are insufficient for their habit.  The result is a chilling short story told from the point of view of both an addict as well as a clinical person not given to excessively gracious bedside manner.

What makes the story particularly interesting is the way that the author manages to efficiently deal with a variety of related concerns.  The story is set during the period of the Russian Revolution, with political issues and the misery of the Russian people being an important element of the story.  Likewise, the author places the two main characters in an interesting juxtaposition with each other.  While Dr. Bromgard seeks to rise in stature and prominence despite the challenges of his time, Dr. Polyakov finds himself undone by a weakness that is prompted by the generous act of a nurse with whom he is in love, despite being married to someone else.  Thus his moral weakness in being an addict is related to another moral weakness of being a disloyal husband and having a tragically loving paramour, something that seems particularly Russian or at least European in its conception.  The result is an excellent short story that offers a great deal of food for thought in a brief and economical package.  One wonders why more writers do not seek to excel in this format given the tendency of many writers to bloat their books beyond all reasonable limit.

[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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