Friday, July 17, 2015

Morphine by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov was trained as a doctor and went to the front in the First World War where he was badly injured twice. [Wiki] To curb his pain, he began taking morphine. His addiction grew, and though in 1918 he gave it up altogether, the torture of that addiction never left him. In 1926 he published a short fictional pamphlet or monograph about a doctor in the backwoods who succumbed to morphine addiction. This work, translated by Hugh Alpin and published in 2013 as part of the New Directions Pearl series, is that account.

A doctor happily residing in a small provincial town receives word that a colleague in the backwoods clinic where he once worked is in a perilous state of health. As he readies himself to go to his assistance, he learns from further communication that the ill man is dying of a gunshot wound. The doctor rushes to the remote village only to be in time for the man’s death. Before he dies, the man presses upon the doctor his diary, which tells the confusing and harrowing story of a slide into morphine addiction.

The pamphlet is not long, only 53 pages, and yet we understand the agonies of increased dosages, the paranoia, the regression into solitude, the despair experienced by the man. It was impossible for him to become free of the drug. The gunshot was self-inflicted.

Bulgakov was raised as a Christian (his father was a priest), one of seven children. He began publishing stories and plays after several years working in war-torn areas, but his work was often repressed by censures. He became “a satirist at a time when true satire is absolutely impossible in the USSR.” (from the Intro to The Master and Margarita by Mirra Ginsburg). He was reduced to producing librettos for opera and dramatizing the works of others. He continued to write, however, and from 1928 to 1940 when he died of inherited liver disease, he worked on his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita, which was not published in the Soviet Union until 1966.

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