The Fateful Eggs: A Lesson for Posterity
A. Charumati Ramdas
“Manuscripts don’t burn”, says one of the characters in M. Bulgakov’s novel “Master and Margarita”. That refers not only to the physical existence of the manuscripts, but the matter contained in them – their content, their soul. So far as Bulgakov’s works are concerned, their soul is eternal, the message conveyed (be it realistically, ironically or fantastically expressed) is always relevant: for all ages, all people, all societies, all governments.
Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulgakov (1891-1940), a doctor by profession, began his literary career with humorous sketches in various newspapers; specially Gudok (Siren).Two decades of this literary activity saw his struggle against odds, against ill wishers, to defend his principles. During 1924-26, Bulgakov published two parts of his novel The White Guards and two collections of satirical short stories Diaboliad and A Treaties on Housing.
In 1924, Bulgakov published his novelette The Fateful Eggs. But the novelette A Dog’s Heart, which he wrote in 1925, could be published in USSR only after Perestroika.
His magnum opus Master and Margarita, to which he devoted 12 long years (1928-1940), was cleared for publication in the Soviet Union only in 1967. It is by now well known to Western and Indian readers as well.
Master and Margarita is a synthesis of reality, fantasy, religion, humour, satire…almost everything that could be contributed to a piece of literature. But, few would suspect that Bulgakov had been experimenting with that kind of combination since much earlier: since 1924. He toys with it in his satirical stories, but not for the sake of literary innovation. It is for something else. Buried deep deep under the mountain, as it were, of BUlgakov’s satire, there is something startling, which can be deciphered only if one reads closely, very carefully not just what is between the lines, but even that, which is hidden behind what is between the lines. Each work of Bulgakov, whether a story, a novelette, or a novel, has so much to convey, however invisible to the naked eye as it were, that volumes and volumes could be produced while decoding the message. Here, an effort is made to discover the hidden message in The Fateful Eggs (Rokovye yaitsa).
The plot of the novelette is deceptively simple. A surface reading would convey the statement that scientific innovations could be immensely useful to mankind if exploited properly, but can lead to disaster and catastrophe if they fall into the hands of misinformed.
Prof. Persikov is quite satisfied with his experiments on toads and other harmless creatures until he accidentally discovers the Red Ray of Life. Under the influence of this Ray, a new and stronger variety of living organisms could be created. The discovery is a revolution in the field of life sciences. Soon, the news of Persikov’s invention spreads like wild fire. The authorities decide to use his Ray for producing a better variety of poultry, which was on the verge of extinction due to plague. All of Persikov’s equipment is shifted to Smolensk and set up in a Soviet State Farm (Sovkhoz).Eggs specially imported from Germany are placed under the Ray of Life. But, alas! The ‘fateful’ eggs produced not chicken, but snakes and crocodiles, which, under the influence of the Red Ray, acquired enormous proportions and strength. They unleash a reign of horror in the province, eating off the victims after breaking their limbs and bones with their powerful clutches and jaws. Horror of horrors, they multiply in no time, with every new reptile surpassing all the previous ones in size, strength and tyranny. A whole army of these deadly creatures comes out of the hot house and proceeds towards Moscow, devouring everything on the way. All efforts to liquidate them fail. People in their anger against the inventor of the Ray of Death (?) lynch Persikov and his assistants. Only a severe snowfall that lasted three full days could finally wipe out the reptiles from the face of earth. Persikov and his invention were gradually forgotten. Remarkably enough, all efforts to produce the Red Ray of Life again proved futile.
The novelette, a seemingly simple and innocent story advocating proper use of scientific innovation, is, however, pregnant with hidden messages. Bulgakov makes it all look so simple by mixing elements of fantasy, realism, science fiction, bitter satire, grotesque situations, and also a concern for ethics.
The Fateful Eggs belongs to the 20’s, the period of war communism, when people were made to (along with a number of other things) practically shrink in their homes. Three rooms from Persikov’s 5-room apartment are taken away to accommodate others. They were returned to him only in 1926. Thus, the story has a melancholy opening: Persikov’s wife runs away with a singer in 1913, and the toads in his laboratory die of starvation one after the other. That forces reptiles to their extinction and then the cockroaches start disappearing.
Rarely does a thing begin with death, come to life mid-way through and again die towards the end. During such a period of short lived optimism, Prof Persikov continues with his lectures at the Institute and his experiments in the laboratory.
It was then that he made the discovery. Observing some amoeba in a suspension under the microscope, Persikov suddenly notices that certain amoeba, under the influence of a light beam, started multiplying at lightening speed and devouring one another. In the merciless battle, the strong conquered the weak and also multiplied, with each new one emerging bigger and stronger. In the beam of light that was falling on the suspension, Persikov could distinctly see a “sharp sword-like ray of red colour”.
That is one clue. The ray was red – the colour of communism, and it was sharp as a sword – ruthless. And only the sharp red sword could make the amoeba defy all norms, violate all known laws. Those under the umbrella of the communist regime of the day could do the same. The regime is the catalyst for an unending struggle for survival, for power. And every survivor and every newcomer is bigger, stronger and more fearsome.
The country was ravaged first by the First World War (1914-1918), then by the Civil War (a918-1922). In between, it underwent two revolutions- the failed February and the ‘successful’ October revolutions of 1917. And, history only knows too well what kind of struggle for power ensued after the death of V.I.Lenin in 1924. In this holocaust, not just the imperial family was liquidated, not just the White Guards (Mensheviks) was destroyed, even Bolshevics conveniently disappeared in thousands. Even among the ‘own’ people, it is not just the harmless toads that are liquidated, not just the deadly reptiles that come to extinction. If even cockroaches, which can normally go without food for a whole month and can easily survive the worst of natural calamities – since they can devour practically anything, right from food crumbs through soap to iron and steel – if even these most efficient scavengers start disappearing, one can imagine the vagaries of this struggle for existence.
Note Bulgakov’s choice of towns – Smolensk and Moscow – for setting up Persikov’s Red Ray equipment and for the destination of the deadly creatures. Smolensk boasted of the Party Headquarters and Moscow was the capital. In Persikov’s laboratory, his invention is tested only on harmless toads. And the experiment is successful. In Smolensk, even the inventor is not consulted. Worse still, his equipment is exploited by the illiterate Director of the State Farm, who cannot tell hen’s eggs from those of snakes and crocodiles. This speaks volumes about Bulgakov’s opinion about the brains that run the Party. And the deadly products of this Smolensk march towards the seat of power, the capital.
The eggs are imported from Germany. Eggs as a metaphor, refers to the Communism which came from Marx who was a German. Two batches of eggs are imported: one, that of reptiles for Persikov’s experiments and the other, of hens for the Sokhoz. By mistake the laboratory parcel reaches the Sovkhoz and the one of hens reaches Persikov.
The name of the illiterate, yet authoritative and greedy Sovkhoz Director is Rokk. The Russian word for ‘Fate’ (neutral) is Sud’ba, but the word for ‘Fate’ (usually tragic) is Rok. By adding just one more ‘K’ to make the Director’s name, whose pronunciation is nevertheless the same, Bulgakov makes his intention clear.
The title of the story (Rokovye Yaitsa) too has a story to tell. It can mean ‘eggs’ that are fateful, deadly, harbingers of destruction’. It can also mean eggs handed over by rok, or tragic/evil/doomed Fate. If one tries to dwell deep into the word ROK, it can be deciphered as Russian Organisation of Kommunists (C is written as K in this word in Russian).
Generally speaking, stories are written based on past or contemporary events. But The Fateful Eggs gives one the feeling that it is based on future events to which the author had an uncanny access, in advance. Several events portrayed in the novelette match with what actually happened after 1924. Not just the march of products of Smolensk to Moscow, not just the ‘dog eats dog’ tendencies; but even the purges of late 20’s and the 30’s are depicted there. In the novelette people run away from Smolensk and the army sets it on fire to get rid of the deadly reptiles. And during the Second World War, almost two decades after 1924 and a few years after Bulgakov’s death, the retreating Soviet army and the inhabitants burnt and abandoned Smolensk. Was Bulgakov merely hinting that the only finale ‘Smolensk’ can reach is to go up in flames? Also the fierce fighting in Vyazma and Mozhaisk and the panic in Moscow and its evacuation during the Second World War are startlingly parallel to Bulgakov’s description.
Bulgakov writes the story in 1924, but sets it up in 1928. And he states that Meyerhold “died in 1927”, while actually Meyerhold died in 1940. Bulgakov implies that Meyerhold as a dramatist was as good as dead, once he towed the official line and a theatre was named after him (which too actually happened).
Bulgakov misses no opportunity to take a dig at Man. After discovering the Red Ray, Prof. Persikov closely examines the source of the Ray. It was not coming from the Sun or any other natural source. It was emanating from the electric bulb illuminating his dark, gloomy laboratory. All devastating power, all sufferings are Man-made.
Now let us indulge in some worthwhile experiments. Take any society, any government in any country at any point of time in the history of mankind. Wouldn’t the history of The Fateful Eggs apply to it? Isn’t it always the ‘fittest of the day’ who survive in the struggle for existence?
Take the recent ‘putsch’ in Moscow. The inventor of reforms is sidelined and overshadowed, just like Persikov, and power goes into the hands of those who do not possess the same vision. Can the result be anything other than disaster?
That is the eternal value of Bulgakov’s fiction. If only Man learns at least some lesson from his own experience!
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