The mad scientist and his red ray

This post was edited and republished into my blog’s timeline from my lost posts archive.

The Fatal Eggs by Mikhail Bulgakov

Translated by Roger Cockerell

Pre-blog, back in 2006, we read The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov in our book group and I loved it. This novel about the devil coming to a town of non-believers in 1930s Russia and spreading mischief paralleled against the a writer in mental hospital who has written a Pilate’s eye view of Jesus is a delicious satire on Stalinism and the repression of religion and art.  It wasn’t an easy book to get into – I’d previously tried to read it and failed, but this time it did click with me and I loved it.

The Master and Margarita, not published in his lifetime, is arguably Bulgakov’s masterpiece, but when I came across a new translation by Roger Cockrell of one of his earlier novellas written in the mid-1920s, I had to give that a go. The Fatal Eggs was originally published in the West in a collection of novellas called Diaboliad. Bulgakov was a fan of HG Wells, and this novella owes much to Wells’s The Island of Dr Moreau amongst others, which involved a mad scientist doing experiments on animals.

Set in 1928 – just into the future at the time of writing, Bulgakov’s Professor Persikov is a classic mad scientist. The ageing academic is consumed by his passion for zoology, and amphibians in particular. He is a difficult man, and makes the lives of those around him hell, including his assistant Pankrat, and all the students he teaches in Moscow whom he persistently fails in their exams.

One day he makes an accidental discovery after having left a microscope on; when he returns the combination of light and lenses has created a red ray which focused on the amoeba under the scope has accelerated their growth immensely. He builds a larger apparatus, and tries it out with similar success on his beloved frogs.

At the same time as Persikov’s discovery, and unbeknown to him, a fatal disease is rampaging its way through Russia’s poultry stock, and all chickens have had to be destroyed. Persikov’s invention by this time has come to the attention of journalists and the secret police – who step in to confiscate his large machines, planning to use them to speed grow new chickens – but there’s a mix-up with the eggs, and as you might guess, things are going to go badly wrong!

Mad professors, bungling secret agents and mob rule make for a heady mix of broad comedy and swipes at all things red and Russian – nothing escapes his satiric pen, although I’m no expert in the October revolution and what came after it. The ending of this novella is somewhat weak, using a conveniently Wellsian construct that I won’t divulge to save spoiling the plot for anyone else that wants to read it – however, getting there is rather fun, and I’m keen to read more of his other works.

The extra material was also very well worth reading. In the introduction we meet Bulgakov, and find out about his influences and some of the references in this novella.  After the story, we get the translators notes which include explanations of the puns in the text, and lastly a thirty page biography and survey of Bulgakov’s work. Bulgakov died young at 48 in 1940, and it was thanks to his third wife’s efforts after his death that we got to read his works in the West, although it took until the early 1970s for the first uncensored translations to appear.

Source: Own copy.    To explore further on Amazon, click below:

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