Tag-Archive for ◊ Moscow ◊

• 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.

• Friday, February 24th, 2012

Ismail Kadare was born in Gjirokastër in Southern Albania in 1936, into a non-religious family. His father was a civil servant and his mother was from a wealthy family. He went to primary and secondary school in Gjirokastër followed by language studies at the University of Tirana in the faculty of history and philology where he obtained a teaching diploma in 1956. He continued his studies at the Maxim Gorky Institute of World Literature in Moscow until 1960.

Kadare was a member of the Albanian parliament from 1970 to 1982, but after some strife with the authorities in 1975 over a politically satirical poem, he was not allowed to publish any of his work for three years. He was also accused by the president of the league of Albanian Writers and Artists of intentionally avoiding to write about politics by writing mainly about history and myths. This was missing the point that Kadare preferred to use these means as an allegory to tackle the current political issues without fearing the repercussions.

Kadare, who is an eminent figure in Albania since the sixties, sought and obtained asylum in France before the fall of communism in his country. He stated at the time that: “Dictatorship and authentic literature are incompatible…The writer is the natural enemy of dictatorship”. Since 1990 he lives both in Paris and Tirana.

Kadare is a prolific writer. His first collection of poetry was published in 1954 and his first novel, The General of the Dead Army, was published in 1963. He has also written essays and short stories.

His most recent book, Ghost Rider, was published in 2011 and his novels have been published in more than forty countries. In 1992 he won the Prix mondial Cino Del Duca and in 1998 he was the first Albanian to be presented with the prestigious French Legion d’Honneur. In 2005 he won the inaugural Man Booker International Prize and in 2009 he won the Prince of Asturia Award of Arts. He has frequently been a candidate for the Nobel Prize for Literature.

In Albania The Siege was first called The Drums of Rain, (the title later given to the French edition) but was at last published in 1970 in Albanian under the title The Castle, at a time when Albania was still under the dictatorship of Enver Hoxha. The English version, called The Siege, was published in 2009.

The story which takes place in the early fifteenth century, is of an imaginary siege of an unknown Albanian fortress besieged by the Ottoman Turkish army during the time of George Castrioti. Historically, George Castrioti, known as Skanderbeg, meaning Lord Alexander or Iskander Bey by the Turks, has been the national Albanian hero who bravely fought the mighty Ottomans during the peek of their strength for more than twenty years, when they were the most feared army of the time. He stood as the fierce saviour of Christianity against Islam. It was the confrontation of two cultures and two different religious beliefs, the crescent against the cross, the nowadays so-called: “clash of civilisations”. The historical fact is that after Castrioti’s death in1468, Albania was defeated and became part of the Ottoman empire and is today a predominantly Muslim European Country.

In The Siege, Tursun Pasha, the commander in chief of the Ottoman army, is commissioned to encircle the Albanian fortress which stands amidst fields, assail its people and subjugate them. His fate depends on the success of this mission. He’d better be successful or else commit suicide to make amends for his defeat. As the Quartermaster says to Saruxha: “If he doesn’t win this campaign, his star will dim for good… I am sure of it. If he is beaten, the best he can hope for is banishment for life. As for the worst… The Quartermaster drew a line with his forefinger under his throat”. Tursun Pasha never confronts Skanderberg whose presence is implied in various parts of the novel. He hardly appears in the arena but is acting behind the scenes through his fighters.

Before every new chapter, there are two pages narrating the viewpoint of the non-characterised besieged. Otherwise the whole story is related from the Turks’ angle by several characters, the nameless Quartermaster General in charge of the logistics, the engineer Saruxha, the architect Giaour, the credulous and nervous historian-chronicler Mevla Celebi, the poet Saddedin, the campaign doctor Sirri Selim and the Pasha’s harem who joined the campaign but whose members are kept confined to their tent and guarded by a eunuch.

The story of The Siege, published in 1970, seems to be meant by the author (and for those who can read between the lines) as an indirect representation of the difficult times the Albanians are going through. It was during the rule of the totalitarian, Enver Hoxha and the threat of the Soviet Russians, who were at Albania’s threshold in Czechoslovakia, during the cold war period.

The author, in his novel, describes masterfully and in great detail the brutality and bloodshed in wars, also all the intricacies of a campaign of this magnitude and all that it involves. He portrays with great authenticity the psychology of the invaders and the besieged in this war of attrition: the sustained attacks by the relentless Turkish army and the steadfastness of the stoic Albanians who will not be subdued.

Although it’s an historical fact that the Ottomans ended up conquering Albania, does that make victory perpetually on the side of the technologically advanced and the brutal? Not always according to the story, which goes against historically verified truth. The author wanted to prove an ambiguous point which is not clarified. Maybe out of patriotism and pride or implying that the Enver Hoxha regime, no matter how powerful, will come to an end one day.

The Siege is an engrossing novel, well written with a lot of food for thought, especially when looked upon from today’s perspective.

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