What would happen if Satan came to town? Well, in Moscow, at least, various members of society find themselves either dead or in an insane asylum; a sold out seance at the Variety Theatre exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the upper classes, an entire office finds that they are compelled to break into song every five minutes or so, and there are some exceedingly strange goings-on in a certain apartment building recently occupied by Mikhail Berlioz, whose death signals the opening strains of the madcap symphony wrought by “Professor Woland” and his merry band, and that’s just for a start. Meanwhile, Ivan Homeless, a poet who is among those committed, meets his neighbor at the asylum, an unnamed “Master” whose life disintegrates after Moscow’s literary critics lambast his opus magnum, a novel about Pontius Pilate. The Master mourns the loss of his beloved mistress, who he believes has forgotten him. She, however, when approached by one of Woland’s henchmen and offered a chance to make her dreams come true, finds herself the hostess at Satan’s ball. If she manages to get through a never-ending night of hobnobbing with a glittering company of evildoers, Margarita will have the opportunity to reunite with her lover. Would you make a deal with the devil for eternal happiness?
Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel, published posthumously in 1966, is a completely fascinating and mind-boggling read. I will admit that I spent the entire first half of the novel asking my husband, who’d read it before, when it would start to make any sense. After a while, though, the beautiful language (apologies for not remembering which translation I read), the entertaining characters, and the wildly imaginative story won me over. In the end, while The Master and Margarita is still slightly confusing, it proves itself to be a incredibly constructed study in the dichotomy of human nature, and a biting critique of Soviet society. The story-within-a-story, about the judgement and execution of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, is equally fascinating. Bulgakov paints “Yeshua” as merely a kind of free-thinking hippie who manages to run aground of important people, and Pilate himself as a political pawn. He’d rather have hired Yeshua on as a kind of philosophical advisor, but circumstances beyond his control force him to condemn the man to death.
This notion of Pilate as merely human instead of one of history’s most well-known bad guys exemplifies Bulgakov’s theme of good and evil, but the more fascinating example is Woland himself. Throughout the novel, there is no real instance of him being responsible for any evil-doing; rather, it is his henchman who cause all the trouble. There is a point at which Woland refers to himself as a “department,” suggesting that (much like Pilate) he, and by extension his opposition, are merely doing a job that may or may not reflect on any personal ideal. His treatment of Margarita and her Master, in fact, suggests that he is more a sympathetic soul than anything else. I think that one could persuasively argue that Woland, far from being the villain of the story, is in fact its hero. He and his compatriots come to Moscow to punish the guilty and enact justice for those who have been treated unfairly. That their means are, well, devilish may give the lie to their ends, but that doesn’t necessarily appear to be what Bulgakov wants us to believe. His obvious contempt for the bureaucratic society he is satirizing comes through at every turn. That the novel was heavily censored in Russia upon its original release may serve to prove his point.
Russian novelists, regardless of what century they were writing in, seem to be a wordy bunch. Bulgakov is no exception here, but unlike some of his predecessors, I think the events of The Master and Margarita keep the novel moving along at a good pace. There’s something for everyone here: politics, poetry, romance, humor, drama, sex, violence… If one can avoiding losing patience with the early chapters, which seem rather disjointed and haphazard, this is a truly imaginative and fantastical novel; a little confusing, but ultimately worthwhile.