Book Reviews

The Heart of a Dog

by Mikhal Bulgakov

Astounding, simply incredible, to mix the most macabre of ghost story plot lines with political satire and a vision of the future that borders on science fiction.

The immediacy of the prose pounds at the reader, exclamations and melodrama mingle with subtle and extended suspense. The eerie atmosphere and heightened sensuality throughout is nothing less than delightful. It’s a piece that reminds me of the carved stone balls that fit one inside another. Perhaps a better analogy would be Russian dolls! Yes! Of course you know this review has to be over-exaggerated because any hum-drum literary analysis would be nonsensical.

The dog – Sharikov, begins with his doggy consciousness in his doggy perceived world, starved and abused, ready to die and ready to worship anyone who offers him food. Food, he must have food! Warmth and protection are desirable but secondary. It is of the utmost importance not to be starving! Only when this is satisfied do other elements become important.

Yet there is the small matter of Philip Philipovich replacing the dog’s testicles and pituitary gland with those of a recently deceased man who was a gambler, a drinker etc. Add to this the erupting conflict with the house committee that demands the surgeon share his apartment and the result is brutal slapstick mayhem. Naturally, the dog falls in with the Committee.

Philip Philipovich is protected by friends of course, people who owe him their virility.

The larger analogy is to the Russian revolution, sadly I miss much of the subtlety because of my ignorance. And yet the central point remains. What was the motivation of the surgeon after all? To aid the patient? To give him freedom of thought and enlightenment? Or was it for his own aggrandisement? A cruel experiment?

Ultimately, the ‘monster’ becomes too much of a challenge for its creator’s authority. Brain and balls are reverted. The emasculation of the animal is done without agonising moral dilemma. It is a pragmatic solution – better than simply murdering the thing. But then what of its life back in the shadows, gradually forgetting everything it has learned, forgetting everything that for a short period it was allowed to dream, to choose, to learn and perhaps one day to love.

Ten days that shook the world and back again, all in a seven room apartment. Brilliant.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 8th Jan, 2018

Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney, The Heart of a Dog, Book Review, Mikhail Bulgakov


by George Mackay Brown

Magnus is an atmospheric mystical book that guides the reader through the key events leading up to the martyrdom of Magnus Erlendson whose 900th anniversary was celebrated this year.

The tale is frequently carried by two peasants, Mans and Hild. Their lives are bound to the seasons, to their faith and to their poverty. They who suffer first hand the effects of civil strife between Magnus and his cousin Hakon Paulson because of the divided Orcadian Earlship. At times, two tinkers also take up the narrative. The pair are made up of the good hearted Jock and the blind, irascible Mary who is eventually cured following Jock makes devotion to the recently slain Magnus.

The diversions into the scraps between the Paulson and Erlson men are thrown into sharp modern day relief with a sinister passage set in the Jew extermination camps of Nazi Germany (I wondered for a long time why my library copy had a swastika on its cover). Again a chef is called upon to do a filthy and barbarous act by men who are barely recognisable as animals, never mind humans.

This is far more than a pastoral sequence and the telling of the life of a saint. There are no pallid tableaux to warm the hearts of the faithful and send comfort that even in this windswept locality great martyrs rise. The narrative is an indictment of human weakness and the negative effect of logical political conclusions on the lives of the people that leaders are meant to serve rather than exploit. Modern parallels abound.

There is no aggrandisement of Magnus the man, nothing convoluted or hyperbolic about his uniting with Christ during that final night of torment and prayer.

What choice did Magnus have? That remains an eternal question for so many human actions. It can be applied to Hakon as freely as to Magnus, to their men at arms, to the way Mans drinks and abuses Hild, to the way Mary remains ungrateful and feckless. Do they have any more choice than the barely seed thrown into the rill on the hillside? or the seeds carried by the wind and throttled by weeds?

There is delightful richness in George Mackay Brown’s prose, slowing the reader down as poetry does, producing a steady rhythm, an ebb and release of story that is born of confidence and mastery of the form. It is certainly not a book to be rushed through, as the library will know from my many renewals.

There are passages that I want to revisit, to hold again in my mind – I will now return my copy and in time, seek out a copy of my own.

Gabrielle Barnby

Orkney, 1st Nov, 2017

Review, Magnus, George Mackay Brown, Gabrielle Barnby, Orkney, books.