“The Fatal Eggs”, Chapter I – Weekly Reads
Today is the start of your next Bulgakov journey into the 1925 satirical Sci-Fi novel, “The Fatal Eggs”, a parable of bureaucratic bungling, avoidable disaster and drastic countermeasures which unfold as the world grapples with biological disaster. Comparison can be drawn to works such as Mary Shelley’s “The Last Man”, “The Plague” by Albert Camus and José Saramago’s haunting “Blindness”, all eerily appropriate reads and chillingly relevant in this unprecedented time, of which was acknowledged in a recent article in The Economist, which can be found here https://www.economist.com/books-and-arts/2020/03/25/bulgakovs-biting-vision-of-an-avoidable-plague.
Please find Chapter 1 of 12 below. Happy reading!
CHAPTER I. Professor Persikov’s Curriculum Vitae
On the evening of 16 April, 1928, the Zoology Professor of the Fourth State University and Director of the Moscow Zoological Institute, Persikov, went into his laboratory at the Zoological Institute in Herzen Street. The Professor switched on the frosted ceiling light and looked around him.
This ill-fated evening must be regarded as marking the beginning of the appalling catastrophe, just as Professor Vladimir Ipatievich Persikov must be seen as the prime cause of the said catastrophe.
He was fifty-eight years old. With a splendid bald head, like a pestle, and tufts of yellowish hair sticking out at the sides. His face was clean-shaven, with a slightly protruding lower lip which gave it a slightly cantankerous expression. Tall and round-shouldered, he had small bright eyes and tiny old-fashioned spectacles in silver frames on a red nose. He spoke in a grating, high, croaking voice and one of his many idiosyncrasies was to crook the index finger of his right hand and screw up his eyes, whenever he was saying something weighty and authoritative. And since he always spoke authoritatively, because his knowledge in his field was quite phenomenal, the crooked finger was frequently pointed at those with whom the Professor was conversing. Outside his field, that is, zoology, embriology, anatomy, botany and geography, however, Professor Persikov said almost nothing at all.
Professor Persikov did not read the newspapers or go to the theatre. His wife had run away with a tenor from the Zimin opera in 1913, leaving him a note which read as follows:
“Your frogs make me shudder with intolerable loathing. I shall be unhappy all my life because of them.”
The Professor did not marry again and had no children. He was short-tempered, but did not bear grudges, liked cloudberry tea and lived in Prechistenka Street in a flat with five rooms, one of which was occupied by the old housekeeper, Maria Stepanovna, who looked after the Professor like a nanny.
In 1919 three of the Professor’s five rooms were taken away. Whereupon he announced to Maria Stepanovna:
“If they don’t stop this outrageous behaviour, I shall leave the country, Maria Stepanovna.”
Had the Professor carried out this plan, he would have experienced no difficulty in obtaining a place in the zoology department of any university in the world, for he was a really first-class scholar, and in the particular field which deals with amphibians had no equal, with the exception of professors William Weckle in Cambridge and Giacomo Bartolomeo Beccari in Rome. The Professor could read four languages, as Mvell as Russian, and spoke French and German like a native. Persikov did not carry out his intention of going abroad, and 1920 was even worse than 1919. All sorts of things happened, one after the other. Bolshaya Nikitskaya was renamed Herzen Street. Then the clock on the wall of the corner building in Herzen Street and Mokhovaya stopped at a quarter past eleven and, finally, unable to endure the perturbations of this remarkable year, eight magnificent specimens of tree-frogs died in the Institute’s terrariums, followed by fifteen ordinary toads and an exceptional specimen of the Surinam toad.
Immediately after the demise of the toads which devastated that first order of amphibians rightly called tailless, old Vlas, the Institute’s caretaker of many years’ standing, who did not belong to any order of amphibians, also passed on to a better world. The cause of his death, incidentally, was the same as that of the unfortunate amphibians, and Persikov diagnosed it at once:
The scientist was perfectly right. Vlas should have been fed with flour and the toads with flour weevils, but the disappearance of the former determined that of the latter likewise, and Persikov tried to shift the twenty surviving specimens of tree-frogs onto a diet of cockroaches, but then the cockroaches disappeared too, thereby demonstrating their hostile attitude to war communism. Consequently, these last remaining specimens also had to be thrown into the rubbish pits in the Institute yard.
The effect of these deaths on Persikov, particularly that of the Surinam toad, is quite indescribable. For some reason he blamed them entirely on the People’s Commissar for Education.
Standing in his fur cap and galoshes in the corridor of the freezing Institute, Persikov said to his assistant Ivanov, an elegant gentleman with a fair pointed beard:
“Hanging’s too good for him, Pyotr Stepanovich! What do they think they’re doing! They’ll ruin the whole Institute! Eh? An exceptionally rare male specimen of Pipa americana, thirteen centimetres long…”
Things went from bad to worse. When Vlas died the Institute windows froze so hard that there were icy scrolls on the inside of the panes. The rabbits, foxes, wolves and fish died, as well as every single grass-snake. Persikov brooded silently for days on end, then caught pneumonia, but did not die. When he recovered, he started coming to the Institute twice a week and in the round hall, where for some reason it was always five degrees below freezing point irrespective of the temperature outside, he delivered a cycle of lectures on “The Reptiles of the Torrid Zone” in galoshes, a fur cap with ear-flaps and a scarf, breathing out white steam, to an audience of eight. The rest of the time he lay under a rug on the divan in Prechistenka, in a room with books piled up to the ceiling, coughing, gazing into the jaws of the fiery stove which Maria Stepanov-na stoked with gilt chairs, and remembering the Surinam toad.
But all things come to an end. So it was with ‘twenty and ‘twenty-one, and in ‘twenty-two a kind of reverse process began. Firstly, in place of the dear departed Vlas there appeared Pankrat, a young, but most promising zoological caretaker, and the Institute began to be heated again a little. Then in the summer with Pankrat’s help Persikov caught fourteen common toads. The terrariums came to life again… In ‘twenty-three Persikov gave eight lectures a week, three at the Institute and five at the University, in ‘twenty-four thirteen a week, not including the ones at workers’ schools, and in the spring of ‘twenty-five distinguished himself by failing no less than seventy-six students, all on amphibians.
“What, you don’t know the difference between amphibians and reptilia?” Persikov asked. “That’s quite ridiculous, young man. Amphibia have no kidneys. None at all. So there. You should be ashamed of yourself. I expect you’re a Marxist, aren’t you?”
“Yes,” replied the devastated student, faintly.
“Well, kindly retake the exam in the autumn,” Persikov said politely and shouted cheerfully to Pankrat: “Send in the next one!”
Just as amphibians come to life after a long drought, with the first heavy shower of rain, so Professor Persikov revived in 1926 when a joint Americano-Russian company built fifteen fifteen-storey apartment blocks in the centre of Moscow, beginning at the corner of Gazetny Lane and Tverskaya, and 300 workers’ cottages on the outskirts, each with eight apartments, thereby putting an- end once and for all to the terrible and ridiculous accommodation shortage which made life such a misery for Muscovites from 1919 to 1925.
In fact, it was a marvellous summer in Persikov’s life, and occasionally he would rub his hands with’ a quiet, satisfied giggle, remembering how he and Maria Stepanovna had been cooped up in two rooms. Now the Professor had received all five back, spread himself, arranged his two-and-a-half thousand books, stuffed animals, diagrams and specimens, and lit the green lamp on the desk in his study.
You would not have recognised the Institute either. They painted it cream, equipped the amphibian room with a special water supply system, replaced all the plate glass with mirrors and donated five new microscopes, glass laboratory tables, some 2,000-amp. arc lights, reflectors and museum cases.
Persikov came to life again, and the whole world suddenly learnt of this when a brochure appeared in December 1926 entitled “More About the Reproduction of Polyplacophora or Chitons”, 126 pp, Proceedings of the Fourth University.
And in the autumn of 1927 he published a definitive work of 350 pages, subsequently translated into six languages, including Japanese. It was entitled “The Embryology of Pipae, Spadefoots and Frogs”, price 3 roubles. State Publishing House.
But in the summer of 1928 something quite appalling happened…
Source: “The Fatal Eggs”, Mikhail Bulgakov, translated by Kathleen Gook-Horujy, Raduga, Moscow, 1990