Tag-Archive for ◊ breath ◊

• Saturday, March 19th, 2016

Mikhail Afanasyevich Boulgakov was born in Kiev, Ukraine in 1891, during the Russian empire, and died from a kidney disease in 1940 in Moscow during the Soviet era. He was one of seven children, the eldest of three brothers. His father was an assistant professor at the Kiev Theological Academy and his mother a former teacher.

After finishing high school, Boulgakov studied medicine at the Medical Faculty of Kiev University. He graduated in 1916 and worked as a surgeon in Chernovtsy hospital in Ukraine before dedicating his life to writing: plays, novels and short stories. He married three times, the first in 1913, the second in1924 and the third time in 1931.

Boulgakov was known for his scathing attacks on the communist regime which caused his disgrace by the authorities and by 1930 he was no longer allowed to publish his work. His request for permission to leave the country was refused and his literary ostracism remained until he died. Boulgakov was posthumously and slowly rehabilitated ten years after his death in the late 1950s but it wasn’t until 1962 that many of his plays, novels and short stories were published.

Heart Of A Dog, written in Russian and published in 1925 was banned from publication by the Soviet authorities soon after, because it was considered to be controversial and regarded as an allegory of the unsuccessful Russian revolution as well as a criticism of the new regime and an attack on their political idealism. The novel was first translated into English by Michael Glenny in 1968, long before it was allowed to be officially published in the Soviet Union in 1987, sixty-two years after the novel had been written and forty-seven years after Boulgakov’s death.

The story is set in Moscow in the early nineteen twenties. It starts with a badly mistreated, injured, suffering and moaning street mongrel dog, who due to starvation has been rummaging through dustbins searching for food when a cruel cook scolds it with boiling water as a deterrent. The poor dog, out of breath, lies in agony under a porch, crying and bitterly bemoaning his fate, his rough life and the challenges he has to endure for survival, especially in the cold freezing winter.

The renowned surgeon, professor Filip Filippovitch, who happens to be passing, encounters the shabby dog. The professor gives him a piece of sausage, buys him food, takes him home, feeds him, looks after him and treats his badly wounded, burnt flank.

The dog is given the name Sharik (a common name given to dogs in Russia) and is a Godsend for the professor who wants to carry out an audacious experiment, with the help of his assistant, Dr Bormenthal, by transplanting the genital glands as well as the pituitary gland of a freshly dead human unto Sharik’s body. The result is astoundingly successful but the draw back is that the good natured dog becomes an uncontrollable, lustful, hairy man with a foul vocabulary, a thug, an alcoholic and a petty thief like the twenty-eight-year old deceased man he is replacing. Nevertheless, he still keeps some of the dog impulse like hating and chasing cats.

Sharik evolves into Sharikov and blends in well with communist society by becoming an eager government worker. When Professor Filippovitch is faced with all the indoor and outdoor problems that Sharikov is creating he becomes strict with him by trying to educate him to be civil, reasonable and act responsibly but to no avail. Sharikov resents the professor and his strict discipline. In fact he dislikes him intensely and threatens to denounce him to the authorities for being a reactionary by making negative remarks against the revolution.

Heart Of A Dog narrated by the dog, Sharikov, is a scornful satirical comedy on pseudo-science, a surreal mixture of fact and fantasy. The author denounces the corruption, prejudice and bigotry of the communist regime and its leaders who were more intent on pillage and class vindictiveness than creating a better new life for their citizens. In his novel the author expresses, through professor Filippovitch, the overcritical protagonist, his disapprobation of the Soviet system by depicting a 1917 revolution that lost its way and went wrong.

The unprecedented, presumptuous, cruel and inhuman experiment that Professor Filippovitch and his assistant Dr Bormenthal undertake, depicts the folly of men who don’t know the limits of their power and start tampering with the unknown, to the detriment of celestial and natural powers, to end up with an alarmingly threatening and fiendish result. Heart Of A Dog is an imaginative story with a strong message that can be interpreted as an allegory of the Soviet Union’s political system, which is like professor Filippovitch’s experiment on the stray dog, clearly doomed to failure.

Luckily, with the experiment done on Sharik, there is a reversibility. After realising his failure, professor Filippovitch undertakes a surgical operation on Sharikov, this time removing the human glands and transplanting to Sharik his original genital and pituitary glands which had been preserved. After the successful reverse operation, the uncontrollable, ungrateful fake human, Sharikov returns to his former harmless state as the pleasant, grateful dog, Sharik.

At the time of writing his novel, Boulgakov didn’t know that his wish would come true, one day, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union in December 1991 after about seventy years of existence and fifty one years after his death. Mikhail Boulgakov was a man with a vision that was ahead of its time.

• Sunday, May 27th, 2012

Kanegae Hideyoshi was born in Harbin, China in 1926 and his pen-name was Mitsugu Saotome. He studied at Keio University’s Literature Department but left before obtaining a degree.

In 1954, Yamamoto Shugoro, the popular Japanese novelist and short-story writer, accepted to be Saotome’s mentor.

Before writing novels about the Japanese Warring States period from the pre-modern to modern times (1868 to 1912), he was publishing period fiction and historical stories in journals.

In 1968 Mitsugu Saotome was awarded the prestigious Naoki Prize for his novel Kyojin No Ori (The Cage Of The Traveller) and in 2006 he was elected chairman of the Japanese P.E.N..

Saotome is well known as a writer of Japanese historical fiction. He claimed that this interest derived from the fact that he was descended from a Samurai of the Aizu-Wakamatsu domain and therefore he had a special affection for Aizu-Wakamatsu, the land of his ancestors.

He was a prolific writer, his novels are very popular in Japan and several of them have been adapted into feature films and television series. Okei was first published in Japan in 1974 and was translated into English in 2008. Unfortunately, Okei seems to be the only novel of all his work which has been translated into English.

Mitsugu Saotome died in 2008 of stomach cancer in the city of Kamakura in Kanagawa prefecture, Japan.

The epic story of Okei is set in the second half of the nineteenth century, in the mountainous town of Aizu-Wakamatsu, during a turbulent internal bloody period of Japanese history. It’s the transitional period between the end of the feudal shogunate, from 1853 to 1867, and the restoration of the Meiji era which lasted from 1868 to 1912.

The shogun had a very strong military power in Japan which relegated the power of the emperor to solely being a religious and political leader. The word Meiji means enlightened rule, which had as its target the combination of Western progress with Eastern established values. The Meiji era saw the disappearance of the Keio period and with it the city of Edo which became the “Eastern Capital” Tokyo and replaced the ancient capital, Kyoto, located in the western part of the country.

Okei, the main character of the novel and the one that stands out against all the others, is a teenage-peasant cooper’s daughter, who despite very strict rules, with class distinctions rigorously enforced, plus the Samurai complex code of honour, falls passionately in love with the young Samurai, Sasanuma Kingo. Her ardent flame isn’t shared by Kingo, being himself in love with Yukiko, the widow of the senior councillor, Jinbo Shuri, who had taken his own life by committing Seppuku (Harakiri) in order to wash his shame, as was the tradition among Samurai when they displeased their master.

The author describes how throughout centuries people had established connections and loyalties to the local feudal lord because his defeat meant the defeat of his clan and how the long established code of manners, loyalties and obedience started to fade from Japanese society and was replaced by new values. Aizu has lived three hundred years of peace before the Westerners violated the eastern land and were hated for it.

Okei, whose character is well developed in the novel, lived a short but intense life. In fact, her forlorn life and death are tragic. She matures too soon due to circumstances which she can’t fathom most of the time. The innocent, hard working, romantic girl becomes more reasonable and acquiescent to harsh reality. She is nearly raped by Edward Schnell when she is asleep in his warehouse loft. Luckily, Henry Schnell, Edward’s elder and wiser brother, who is nearby, comes to the rescue. The two Dutch brothers, Henry and Edward are suppliers of up-to-date arms and canons to the western Japanese. They have dissimilar characters, Edward is frivolous, liking to use Japanese women for his pleasure only and thinks little of them, while Henry is more level-headed, respects them and marries one of them, the widow, Matsuno.

Throughout her life, Okei has to re-adapt. Whether it is due to the war and the starting of a new era in Japan and with it the change of mentalities and new codes, or the emigration to the new world for survival. She has to learn to readjust, like her compatriots, to the American culture in Coloma, California, the El Dorado country, where the big Gold Rush took place from 1848 to 1855, fourteen years before Okei and her rural community arrived in the area.

Until her last breath, Okei was longing to go back to her home in Aizu but realised that her feet took her where she had to be buried, at the site of the old settlement, on top of Gold Hill colony in California.

If only she hadn’t murdered an imperial army officer, in panic, fear and in self defence and especially after the Crane Castle had fallen. She was certain that her deed would be considered a crime rather than an act of war and that is why she could never go back to her beloved Aizu. She realised and accepted that she had to submit to her fate and to the fact that the so far trustworthy, Henry and his wife, who was her mistress and friend, left California for Japan without ever keeping contact with her which is a big disappointment for Okei and a betrayal of the trust she had for them.

Touching in parts, violent and bloody in others, it’s a well documented novel with abundant action. A very colourful epic with vividly intense historical details. A good insight into Japanese and American history of the time.



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