Book review

by Kevin Windle

O diabo solto em Moscu: a vida do senhor Bulgákov & prosa autobiográfica
Homero Freitas de Andrade

Published by Editoria da Universidade de São Paulo, 2002
ISBN 9788531406119

It is not often that books on Russian literature from Latin America impinge upon the consciousness of Slavists in other parts of the world. This may be simply because they are few and far between, or perhaps because those that are written do not cross the language barrier. The present life of Bulgakov will be of interest to specialists in twentieth-century Russian literature, though the fact that it is in Portuguese may have a certain deterrent effect. The author is a Russianist and a translator, known for his Portuguese versions of stories by Babel. This book is based on his 1994 doctoral dissertation from the University of São Paulo.

The first part, ‘A Vida do Senhor Bulgakov’, some 270 pages in length, is, as the title indicates, a biography, and includes a list of personalities and a 12-page bibliography. The genesis of Bulgakov’s works is described, and, if there is little by way of literary analysis, this may be justified by the intended focus on ‘life’ rather than ‘works’. A readable and fairly detailed chronological account is given of Bulgakov’s career, based on well-known Russian sources. This means that Marietta Chudakova’s splendid Zhizneopisanie has pride of place in the footnotes, along with the collection Vospominaniia o Mikhaile Bulgakove, assembled by E. S. Bulgakova and S. Liandres (Moscow 1988). It is notable that the range of sources utilized is a good deal narrower than it might have been, and narrower than if the doctorate had been written ten years later. But even in 1994 the author should have been able to consult the authoritative works by Lesley Milne, Andrew Barratt, the Proffers, A. Colin Wright, Anatolii Smeliansky, Julie Curtis, and Andrzej Drawicz, none of whom figure in the references or Bibliography. In fact the section of the Bibliography entitled ‘Obras sobre Mikhail Bulgakov’ lists only Russian works on Bulgakov, while ‘Obras gerais’ [General Works] is a brief sampling of background titles in English, French and Italian, and, like ‘Obras gerais em russo’, contains several works of marginal relevance only.

Also included in the first part, between the section ‘Os últimos dias’ and the Epilogue ‘Manuscritos não ardem’ [Manuscripts do not burn], is a forty-page section entitled ‘Bulgakiada (intermezzo incidental)’. This consists largely of translated excerpts about Bulgakov, mostly taken from Vospominaniia o Mikhaile Bulgakove, but including the transcript of his 1926 interrogation by the GPU, first published in Nezavisimaia gazeta in 1993.

The second part, ‘Prosa Autobiográfica’, comprises the tales of a young doctor (Zapiski iunogo vracha) and nine other stories, mostly from Bulgakov’s earliest period, in Portuguese translation, with sparing explanatory notes for the benefit of the reader with no special knowledge of the field. No consideration is given to the term ‘autobiographical’ or to the sometimes elusive boundary between fiction and non-fiction, but ‘autobiography’ for these purposes apparently does not include the novels The White Guard or Black Snow, despite mention of their ‘autobiografismo’. Given their firm basis in Bulgakov’s own life and that of his family, a strong case might be made for their inclusion, but of course their length would rule them out. A focus on short, first-person pieces, can lead to some surprising inclusions. ‘Vospominanie’, for example, showing Nadezhda Krupskaia’s kindness in helping the narrator find a home in Moscow, and ‘Chasy zhizni i smerti’, on Lenin’s lying-in-state, present an uncharacteristically pro-Soviet Bulgakov.

The text and photograph captions are marred by some unfortunate errors, which ought to have been expunged in the editorial processes. The famous recruiting poster by Iraklii Toidze from the Second World War, with the slogan ‘Rodina-mat′ zovet!’ is reproduced (p. 45) with a caption saying that it dates from the 1914–18 war. A reference to ‘Galicia’ in a passage cited from ‘Neobyknovennye prikliucheniia doktora’ prompts a footnote explaining that Galicia is the name of a Kiev prison (p. 56), although the hero has just been drafted into the army, and from the phrase ‘Menia zaberut v Galitsiiu’ it is logical to suppose that he fears being sent to the Galician front. ‘Curtson’ appears at least twice for ‘Curzon’ (p. 86); Otto Hoetzsch’s book should have the title The Evolution [not Revolution] of Russia (p. 32), and a translated sentence from it speaks of Russia’s ‘Balkan provinces’, where Hoetzsch had ‘Baltic’. There is much mis-spelling of Russian words in Cyrillic, and stress-marking on Russian names is unreliable. Aleksandr Tvardovsky and Dmitrii Shostakovich appear in the list of personalities with a birth-date but no date of death.

The partial coverage of sources, particularly non-Russian sources, is disappointing and leaves one with a sense that Part I is less than complete. The other blemishes are relatively minor and do not detract seriously from an informative ‘life’ and a valuable collection of Bulgakov’s lesser known short works in an attractively-produced volume.