The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

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Category: Literary Fiction
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Magda Healey
Reviewed by Magda Healey
Summary: The Devil visits Stalin's Moscow - and mayhem ensues in this unique combination of a love story, vicious satire, philosophical treaty, fantasy, horror and re-telling of the Christian Gospel story. Wholeheartedly recommended to anybody who can cope with several interwoven stories and a quite serious helping of fantasy and the grotesque.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 432 Date: January 2004
Publisher: Penguin Books Ltd
ISBN: 0141187794

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In the days before commercial radio, when some books were banned and others would be only available on the second-hand market at a price akin to 10% of a teacher's monthly salary, I heard this read aloud on Polish Radio 3: early in the morning on the fourteenth of the spring month of Nisan, the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, in a white cloak lined with blood-red...

I didn't know it was beginning of the second chapter. I didn't know that the the first one took place 1900 years later in Stalinist Moscow. Little I expected that the following ones will include Soviet literati, broom-stick riding witches, great ball at Satan's and flying pigs. I was 13 years old and I was hooked.

Since then - and it's more than 20 years - I have read Master and Margarita several times, in Polish and English. Sadly, I have never read it in original, as Cyrillic alphabet slows me down to the level of a struggling 6 year old. Luckily, I have never studied or analysed it except for occasional glimpses of interpretation that accidentally fell my way.

The frame of the novel consists of the events taking place during three spring days in Moscow. It starts with an editor Berlioz and a poet Bezdomny discussing an anti-religious poem that the poet wrote, but which, alas, isn't anti-religious enough because Jesus' figure, however morally blackened, seems real. Then, out of a sultry air of a Moscow afternoon a hallucination of the Devil, claiming to be a witness to the original events of Easter and having breakfasted with Kant, appears and a needle of what but metaphysical anxiety pierces Berlioz's heart. Rightly so, as Woland (the Satan in 'Master and Margarita') predicts the exact hour and manner of his death and thus provides the definite proof of the existence of God.

This initial scene sets out for the reader almost all the main themes of the book: and it is a multi-themed novel indeed. However, all the plots and threads are woven together, all interlock perfectly and we realise, eventually, that Bulgakov is telling just one story, albeit a complicated one, and one that stretches for almost 2000 years.

As the events progress and the Devil's intervention in the lives of Muscovites becomes more noticeable, the story turns decidedly into a farce, reaching its climax in the show in a certain Variety theatre, where the Devil wreaks havoc by playing on people's old sins: greed, vanity, cowardice.

Interwoven with the tale of Woland's visit to Moscow is the story of the Master whom we met - in an eerily futuristic mental asylum - only on page 156, and Margarita, who doesn't appear in person until much later.

The novel that Master had been writing - a retelling of the story of Pontius Pilate in the time of the Crucifixion - is the third narrative strand.

Every time I read Master and Margarita I enjoy it and find something new in it. I don't hope to ever fully appreciate its symbolism and all allusions, but I hope to keep re-reading it for many more years to come.

At first, being the truth-seeking, religion-dissecting teenager, I was mostly interested in the Master's novel - the great retelling of the Gopsel story. It concentrates on the figure of Pontius Pilate, an intelligent man yearning for good but bound by habit and cowardice to the evil. This is where the strongest political commentary is as well. The realities of a totalitarian regime are pictured more clearly in the Pilate's story then in the contemporary Moscow narrative. The characterisation is superb, the setting too and - at least to me - Pilate was the only reasonably likeable and paradoxically, perhaps the most modern and relevant character in the book.

In my later readings I was fascinated by the horror feast of Margarita's transformation into a witch, the Devil's rout and the mystical grand finale, when both imagination and imagery run wild and the sheer power of Bulgakov's description comes to the fore. Here we have corpses appearing through a fireplace and ghosts of the sinners getting drunk on champagne flowing from fountains. There is also Woland's entourage of demon-sidekicks, with Behemot the Cat, Azazzello the yellow-fanged dwarf assassin and Hella the vampire. The Woland-Satan figure is a crucial one of course, him being the prince of Shadow - the shadow that is necessary prerequisite to light and which, eventually, and in keeping with the quotation form Faust that is the motto of the novel, eventually furthers the progress of the Light.

But is it an allegory? Is Devil-Woland a figure for Stalin? For me certainly not, as he is a just judge and only preys on the sinful. His method are vaguely reminiscent of the Stalinist police, but the Stalin figure can be found more easily in the book-within-the-book; in the never shown and hardly spoken about figure of the Caesar Tiberius residing in Capri and in the Pilate's terror of him; in the fact the only unforgivable crime is doubting the Caesar's rights to power.

On the most recent reading, the satirical picture of the Stalinist Moscow was something that I really appreciated for the first time. The satire is pretty vitriolic and concerns the ideological as well as practical absurdities of the totalitarian Stalinism, where very realistic shortages of living space become a metaphor for shortages of freedom. The life of privileged Moscow literati, servile to the regime, and producing worthless parody of art is satirised brilliantly in sequences revolving around the members of the organisation of professional writers. Stalin and even communism are, amazingly, never mentioned, but there is a powerful, deeply underlying menace, stories of people disappearing are heard. The Variety show is truly a pandemonium, and a cross between Jerry Springer and a police interrogation: people are not gently poked fun at, they are savaged - sometimes literally. It's really funny, it's so funny that it makes you cry - over those people, humiliated and scared because of their specific vices, but also over all the people who ever submitted to temptation.

The last of the great themes of 'Master and Margarita' is one of art, epitomised in the figure of the Master, who having renounced his name, renounced his life, devotes himself completely to his work. He is totally crushed by the rejection of his novel by cowardly, regime-serving critics judging the book on its dangerous subject rather than inherent merits. This is combined with a love story, psychologically completely out of the realm of reality; with love leaping out at the couple like a murderer jumping out of a black alley.

I recommend this book wholeheartedly to anybody who can cope with several interwoven stories and a quite serious helping of fantasy and grotesque. It has a love story, satire, philosophy, fantasy, horror and re-telling of part of the Gospels.

Surprisingly it is not a difficult read; all story-threads start at the beginning and end at the end, flashbacks are fairly rare, while the sentence-to-sentence construction and the word-to-word flow maintain a perfectly traditional appearance, like you would expect in any 'normal' novel. The main difficulty with this novel might be posed by what is said, rather than how it is said. You should be able to judge if it might be for you if you stayed with me so far.

Booklists.jpg The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is in the Top Ten Books Not Originally Written In English.

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