The first piece of fiction I have reviewed here, but it seems appropriate to provide my own reflections on the novel which has been called by some a ‘masterpiece of the 20th Century’, since it has theopolitical undertones, and was recommended to me by none other than AntiDem.
Mikhail Bulgakov was a Russian author and playwrite, though his working occupation was in medicine, where he worked for the Red Cross during WWI. During the Revolution, Bulgakov lost contact with most of his family who emigrated to Paris (his brothers fought in the White Army). His literary works were banned or partially censored for the most part, sometimes personally by Stalin himself, however the brutal dictator did recognize Bulgakov’s talent, and in some ways sheltered his closely monitored career. He died of an inherited kidney disorder in 1940.
This novel is considered his greatest work, and nowadays many sayings found in the book have found their way into Russian parlance. Though it was not published during Bulgakov’s life, his last wife manage to get it out in 1966, and it became appreciated the world over.
‘The Master and Margarita’ features a dual storyline that is interwoven. The primary story centers around satan and a small retinue of demons visiting Soviet Moscow in the 1930s, and their interaction with a couple who have been separated by ‘the Master‘s voluntary institutionalization. The secondary story is a re-telling of the crucifixion, mainly seen through the eyes of the Roman prefect, Pontius Pilate. While the demons cause much havoc and scandal in Moscow, the events which are now disbelieved in atheist Russia are described in lucid detail.
Unlike most Western novels, this book does not have main characters as such, but rather introduces characters as they become important. These can be hard to keep track of sometimes, as many of the Russian characters have nicknames as well as their real names, which are used somewhat interchangeably. If you can get your head around this however, what you will find is a cast of very memorable protagonists. It is most interesting that the book doesn’t really feature antagonists at all, other than perhaps the greedy and the arrogant among Moscow’s theater administrators and literary critics. The devil is not an evil character in the book, but rather an agent of exposure. He is there to ridicule the absurdity of Soviet life, an the exploits of his cadre are less sinister and more hilarious. There isn’t any menace in this novel, but that doesn’t feel out of place at all, because the follies of human life without God are more worthy of mockery than the devil.
During their stay in Moscow, the demons help to reunite the tragic character of Margarita with her institutionalized lover, ‘the Master‘ and secure them peace in exchange for a favor. The Master had his writing career destroyed by Soviet critics (a commentary on Bulgakov’s life), and as a result became mentally ill. In Margarita, the devil sees something worthwhile, singling her out from among the teeming masses of Soviet citizens. Others he is not so impressed with, and does all manner of things from decapitating them to instantaneously transporting them to Yalta with the help of his loyal servants; Koroviev the interpreter, Azazello the muscle, Hella the naked succubus, and Behemoth, the wise-cracking alcoholic cat.
The tale of longing and heartache between the Master and Margarita is so expertly blended into the backdrop of the novel’s dark humor that it runs to its end with a seamless charm, and the vivid descriptions of Jerusalem during the Pilate segments are dreamlike, portraying Pilate in a sympathetic light which I found refreshing yet authentic. Undoubtedly the highlight of the whole experience is the treatment of Soviet life itself. Bulgakov skewers everything from tenants in an apartment block fighting like wild dogs over a spare room, to the corrupt literary establishment with its atheistic presumptions, and even the no-doubt ironically named ‘lightning telegram’ which Bulgakov renders as the ‘super lightning telegram’. In the version of the book I had, there was a useful ‘notes’ section which explained some of the Russian peculiarities that Westerners might not understand. I can say with some satisfaction that I got a lot of the references, though a few were news to me.
I had a lot of fun reading this book (its the first fiction I’ve read in a while). It provided a much-needed release after the heavy ideological works I’ve been digesting over the last year and a half. Many thanks to AntiDem for the recommendation, and I am happy to pass it on. Don’t miss this classic tale.