Monday, February 8, 2010

Front List/Back List: Communism Is For The Dogs

Well here it is. The first Front List/Back List is upon us. Since the new format may take some getting used to, I have decided to make the first post one of direct relationship between the two books.

Remember, the Front List/Back List postings are going to consist of one new release and one older "back list" title. The back list title will be relevant to either some current event, trend or in the case of today's post, the new release being reviewed.

So let's get to it.

From The Front List

Two Underdogs And A Cat: Three Reflections On Communism by Slavenka Drakulic. Seagull Books. 2009. Hardcover. Fiction. $17. ISBN: 9781906497286. Part 4 in the "What Was Communism" series edited by Tariq Ali.

"A dog on a leash is in possession of something very precious nowadays - a Master."

In his Six Memos For The Next Millenium Italo Calvino enumerated six concepts, which he believed were elemental to the understanding of literature. One of them, which he termed "Lightness", is best exemplified in fables and folk tales. Lightness, or so Calvino stated, was the ability of a story to deal with weighty matters in a removed manner. Rather than sliding deep into the muck of the issue at hand, "light" writing deftly jumps away from the problem and looks at it from afar. Often with something closely resembling mirth. If not outright knee slapping laughter.

Slavenka Drakulic's most recent attempt to wrestle into digestible terms the world altering behemoth that was Soviet Communism is written with lightness in mind. The author of several novels and one particularly striking memoir concerned with communism (How We Survived Communism And Even Laughed) has certainly enough practice at this discussion to bring along the requisite deftness. That is perhaps the most striking aspect to this tiny book: that it combines decades of knowledge and soul-searching into a collection of mirthful fables.

In three brief fables, each told by a different animal, the realities of and the life after communism are revealed. Drakulic is taking the long view in these stories, both forward and backward. None of these animals, even the feline companion of the "General" who declared martial law in Poland on December 13th, 1981, take a definitive side on what communism was. None of them believe themselves capable of pronouncing, one way or another, a verdict. The one constant among the three intelligent creatures (a mouse, a dog and a cat) is that they lament the growing unawareness of what life was like in communistic times.

Shockingly, Drakulic's small interlocutors outline a torpor both in the post soviet countries as well as abroad. Having never been to eastern Europe or Russia, I personally held the apparently misinformed belief that communism was still very much "felt" by those still living in its wake. In a way, this is an essential difference with Drakulic's book and the series it is a part of. Drakulic is interested in communism as it was through the venue of what it is.

Delivered with, of course, a light touch.

In the first story a mouse, a sort of de facto curator and tour guide at the Museum Of Communism discusses many of the relics on display with a relative who is visiting, who just happens to be a German rat.

In the second story the oldest dog in Bucharest remembers the hardships described by his mother when Nicolae Ceau┼čescu almost inexplicably made it illegal to own dogs, forcing the onetime companion animals into the streets. Ceausecu never ordered there extermination, believing that the animals would starve and he could avoid the bad press. Instead modern Bucharest has a problem with a dangerous wild dog population.

Wojciech Jaruzelski is never named in the final story, but the hard to describe career of the last communist leader in Poland is center stage as his (though she would not like this designation) cat writes to the war crimes trial officials in hope of expedience. One way or another, guilty or innocent, she wants the trial to come to a close. People do not know how to feel about it otherwise, or so she observes with icy reserve. Closure is something supremely important for those who might yet see themselves as victims. And apparently cats.

For every dog a leash and each cat a clean break.

One part history lesson mixed with one part fable, Drakulic has provided readers a very useful book. As a "War On Terror" escalates and a "big push" has commenced in Afghanistan it is precisely a book like Two Underdogs And A Cat that may provide readers with a sense of balance when looking toward the long view. Forward or backward.

From The Back List

Heart Of A Dog by Mikhail Bulgakov. Translated by Mirra Ginsburg. Grove Press. Trade Paperback. $14. Originally written in 1925, it remained unpublished in the Soviet Union until 1987.

"A collar is just like a briefcase, the dog quipped mentally and, wagging his behind, proceeded with a lordly air to the second floor."

Bulgakov's second greatest satire (after The Master and Margarita) is perhaps as close to the word "sublime" as slapstick can come. The tale is a reworking of the Frankenstein story to fit hilariously grim (like the smile on a skull) into the framework of early communist Russia.

Beginning and ending with Sharikov (the mongrel in the starring role) narrating his often less than favorable situation it is yet the middle that most readers will delight over.

Philip Philippovich is Moscow's and perhaps all the world's greatest medical genius. His talented ministrations to the upper crust of the Party's officials has granted him somewhat of a special lifestyle in the midst of 1920's poverty. Despite a disreputably noble heritage, the good doctor lives in great abundance, eating elaborate meals and dwelling in an apartment far larger than what would typically be allotted him.

It isn't his daily practice that we're interested in though. No, indeed the doctor is a revolutionary (in the nonpolitical sense) figure in experimental medicine. His latest quest is regeneration of human tissue using animals. Kudos to Bulgakov for foreseeing such medical innovation. Hopefully that's all he foresaw...

Enter Sharikov. The mangy but lovable mutt is taken in and cared for by the doctor and his assistants. The stray dog is amazed at his seemingly good fortune. Sure, he is no longer free, but the square meals and warm apartment are well worth the trade. This is one of the constants between the above book by Drakulic and Bulgakov's. Namely that there is something not altogether bad about being "managed" by someone else. Even if the master is a cruel one.

Thus it is only natural for poor Sharikov to feel suddenly betrayed when the doctor's assistant presses a chloroform rag against his nose.

Enter the monster. By grafting a human's pituitary gland and testicles to poor Sharikov in hopes of regenerating human tissues Philip Philoppovich arrives at a alarming discovery. The transformation of a dog into a man. A stunted, strangely canine looking man.

Worse still is the quality of the organs used to grow this new thing. Apparently, in Mel Brooksian irony, the doctor's assitant procured the organs of a violent lecher given to excessive drinking. They wanted spare parts. They got another drunken thief who spouts Engels and lies in an alternating but consistent pattern. Not to mention the fact this new being has an irrational hatred of cats.

The bureaucracy of communistic Russia demands that every man have his papers and so eventually, much to the chagrin of Philip Philippovich, Sharikov is given his all important papers. In time Sharikov has a job. His chosen profession? That of removing all the cats from Moscow. With swelling, if false, proletariat pride the dog moves about the communistic system playing for sympathy from the strong and viciously lording over the weak.

A darker look at human nature you may be hard to find. Lucky for us, Bulgakov decided to deliver his condemnation of the politics and social hypocrisy of his day in a humorous manner. There are many points in Heart Of A Dog that will have you laughing out loud. There are, alas, more scenes that will have you grimacing than laughing.

The parallel myth of Frankenstein's monster provides the ultimate backdrop for a satire of communism. The good doctor's creation is only realized as monstrous before his own monstrosity, let alone the sinuous leviathan roiling across eastern Europe.

A somewhat surprise ending provides important relief and, well, closure. In this case again important to cats.

A sculpture of the character Behemoth from Bulgakov's masterpiece, The Master And Margarita. On a wall in Kiev.

The Writers

About Slavenka Drakulic.
About Mikhail Bulgakov.


Chris Schaeffer said...

Good stuff. I've had my eye on that Drakulic since it came out, but the weird pseudo-shrinkwrap baggy I always see it packaged in keeps putting me off. I'm kind of wary of a book I can't skim through if I don't have a decent review backing it up.

As for "Heart of a Dog," I was actually somewhat surprised by how relatively low-key it was. After reading "The Master and Margarita" I expected a lot more outlandishness based on the premise.

The Devil's Accountant said...

What translation did you read, Chris? I've only seen the Ginsburg translation, but if it is at all like some of the versions of Master and Margarita (not by Ginsburg) the slap stick can be held back.

Think of the incessant singing of the doctor. Or the flooded bathroom scene.

BTW: The shrink wrap is for a reason. The book warps with moisture very easily. Communism. What do you want?

Kidding aside. As a footnote I'd like to say that soviet era publications were actually very well made. Especially ones they translated into English to send abroad.