The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
One hot spring evening two men sit on a bench at Patriarchs Ponds: Berlioz, editor of a literary magazine and Ivan Nikolayevich, a poet. The editor is lecturing his poet friend on the err of his ways in portraying the fictional Jesus in his recent poetic endeavour as a man, albeit a flawed man, but nonetheless a man who did in fact exist in the most mortal sense of the word. During their heated conversation, a tall foreign stranger, who goes by the name Woland and professes to be a professor and an expert in black magic, approaches them as he is very interested in their debate on the existence of Jesus and claims to have been on the balcony the day Pontius Pilate condemned the prophet to death. After a lengthy discussion, Woland prophesizes Berlioz’ eminent demise, and then all hell breaks loose.
I have wanted to read this book for many years, and it just kept slipping out of my head until a few months ago when I stumbled upon it while browsing at a small Indie book store. I am a huge fan of Russian Literature, so I am a little embarrassed to admit that I kept forgetting about it all these years, but there was no time like the present to read it. Banned Book week was upon us, and Bulgakov’s masterwork was banned in Russia and not released in English until the 1960’s in a censored version. We don’t have to worry about this anymore and can now read one of many wonderful translations. I do suggest that if you are hunting down a copy, make sure you get a decent translation. The one I purchased, pictured above, had a lengthy commentary section that goes over some of the finer points of Russian Politics during the 1930’s, and so it made the read more enjoyable.
The story is a complex allegory: part social satire, part contemporary historical, part romance, part farce, part political irony, part theological pontification, yes, this book, written in the theatrical style of a playwright, is magical realism at its finest. The book moves back and forth between three converging storylines: Woland, or rather Satan, and his retinue’s descent upon the unsuspecting citizens of Moscow; the heartbreaking unconventional love story between the Master and Margarita; and The Master’s own novel, which explores Pontius Pilate’s great guilt. However, Woland is not your conventional Satan, often appearing very sympathetic and thoughtful; Yeshua is not the Jesus we are accustomed to; and Pilate manages to redeem himself. I won’t say how, because that will ruin it. Now Woland doesn’t come to Moscow to reek havoc, nor does he come to whisper in the collective Muscovite ear in order to bring out the worst in people, he merely allows Moscow’s disingenuous to come face to face with their own hypocrisy. Where Yeshua teaches, Woland provokes, but in the end, their goal is the same, and that’s the religious rub of the story: the two are equal and share the same hope for humanity in the end. There is a lot of allusion to the New Testament as well as folklore representations of Pilate and other Biblical characters as Heresy in all its many forms is the main theme running throughout all three plotlines. Each Moscow miscreant, much like in Dante’s Inferno, receives the punishment fitting for their crime. Even The Master’s punishment fits his crime. In this Faustian part of the tale, the Master is condemned to an insane asylum because of his cowardice. Cowardice, Yeshua says, is the greatest of all sins. The Master, having received negative commentary in a review of his unpublished novel, broke under the weight of the criticism and lost faith, in himself and his work, and only through Margarita’s sacrifice, would he finish the novel and achieve peace, which Yeshua, as requested by Woland, grants him in the end: Peace not Light, or rather not salvation.
This story explores a lot of odd and awkward existential angles and does it with finesse and a black humour blacker than the fur on the pickle-eating, vodka-drinking, gun-toting Behemoth, Satan’s Black Cat. The story has a full on narrator who interjects with a vengeance, and the narrative style is operatic and slapstick all at the same time. Besides the main characters: Woland, The Master, and Margarita, there is a litany of other minor characters within the main narrative and also within the Master’s inner novel, and all the characters reflect nicely the main themes of the story: Good and Evil, Heresy, Cowardice, Faith, Death, Freedom, Guilt, and Sacrifice or devotional love among others. And so the characters are deliberately grotesque and superficial, ordinary and archetypal. Satan’s retinue is particularly diverse: the grotesquely dressed valet Koroviev (Fagotto); a fast-talking black cat who walks on his hind legs and is big as a hog, Behemoth; the fanged little wall-eyed hitman Azazello; the demon Abaddon; and the naked red-headed witch Hella. There is a lot of anti-religious propaganda of the day weaved into the narrative, and so there is a lot of parody: Margarita’s stations of the cross as she welcomes the guests at Satan’s spring ball, and The Massolit writers’ last supper of a sort as they argue over who will go to the summer retreat being two of them. To write a proper review of this book is an exercise in futility because there is just so much going on thematically, philosophically, and theologically, it would take extensive study of the text and essays of great length to capture all its nuances. But you don’t have to do all that to just plain old enjoy the story. It’s heartbreaking, horrific, action packed, confusing, hilarious, and if you didn’t have faith in the cosmos before you read it, you just might afterwards. You don’t even need to know much about Russian politics of the time to enjoy the satire, and the language is sublime:
Gods, my Gods! How sad the earth is at eventide! How mysterious are the mists over the swamps. Anyone who has wandered in these mists, who has suffered a great deal before death, or flown above the earth, bearing a burden beyond his strength knows this. Someone who is exhausted knows this. And without regret he forsakes the mists of the earth, its swamps and rivers, and sinks into the arms of death with a light heart ...
I highly recommend that all writers read this book: the lessons in structure, language, characterization, and theme are well beyond what one will get in a style guide. Bulgakov’s articulation of his thesis is flawless, even if the original manuscript has been butchered over the years by clumsy editors and translators.
Podpeople featured author Jim Murdoch just finished reading the book as well and has a rather lengthy review over on his site that is worth the look.
On a final note: Since I read a lot of Russian Literature, I found some striking stylistic resemblances between The Master and Margarita and modern author Sergei Lukyanenko’s Nightwatch series. Specifically in the interplay between the Watch Bosses, who reminded me of Woland and his retinue. There are similarities in theme as well.
Cheryl Anne Gardner