About a year ago, The Millions readers recommended that I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita after I wrote about Crime and Punishment – which was not so much a commentary on Dostoevsky’s fantastic writing, but a plea for more excellent Russian literature. As happens with a lot of books I end up reading, I stumbled upon the novel per chance: a friend visiting me in DC had a copy he intended to read, but gave it to me as a travel companion.
Enter the devil – or Messire, as his servants respectfully call him. Set in Moscow, ostensibly sometime in the 1920s or 1930s, and in Yershalayim right before and after the Crucifixion, Bulgakov’s eccentric satire brings the ruler of the shadows into the lives of unassuming citizens.
As a heavily censored author in communist Russia, Bulgakov mocks the bureaucracy, hints at literary and political persecution, and employs the tightly regulated social life under Stalin to create a colorful scene of chaos.
It all begins when Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz urges the poet Ivan Homeless to revise his latest piece in a way to demonstrate that religion is bogus – namely by explaining that Jesus never existed. A curious stranger joins the debate and, taken aback by the suggestion that the devil does not exist, begins prophesizing about Berlioz’s fast-approaching death. When the chubby publisher succumbs to his fate as foretold, Ivan loses it. And soon, many people in Moscow do too.
Surrounded by an incredible retinue comprising an odd-looking fellow in a pince-nez suit; a talking, drinking and mischievous black tom; a beautiful and often naked red-haired woman; and a vicious, stocky, short man with a fang protruding from his mouth, Messire – or Woland as others call the devil – rules Moscow for a brief few days, amusing himself and his entourage and terrifying many others.
But the devil’s show is not inherently evil, rather it is a collection of minor acts that play on the actors’ vices: bribery, free-goods and personal favors go a long way for the citizens of a cash-strapped USSR. And while Bulgakov amuses his reader with Woland’s deeds and his victims, he introduces the Master and his lover, Margarita. And, he solemnly tells the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate.
The Master, who is banished to an insane asylum after his novel about the Crucifixion is deemed unfit for publishing and subjected to scathing reviews by literary authorities, might just symbolize the author. For The Master and Margarita shared the same fate as the Master’s piece on Pilate – it was published in 1967, 27 years after Bulgakov died.
But the similarities do not stop there. Like the Master who burns his manuscripts, Bulgakov, in an effort to convince Soviet authorities to let him emigrate, destroyed his “book about the devil,” and later rewrote the novel from memory. At the time of his death, the work was still not in its final form.
Bulgakov dictated revisions and additions to his third wife, Yelena Shilovskaya, even from his death bed, and it was she who brought the work to light. Much like Margarita in the novel, who relentlessly pursues her Master and his writings, aiming to both satisfy her desire to know how the story in Yershalayim unfolds and share the masterpiece with the world.
The Master is not the sole teller of this story, however. As time winds back and forth between certain parts of the book, the reader hears the story from Woland, the Master and a narrator from ancient times. One is, all of a sudden, observing the painful contemplations of Pilate, his disgust for the post in the Middle East and the brewing tensions in Yershalayim. I’m not much for Christian history, but from what I can tell Bulgakov sheds a different light on to the whole situation. This becomes manifest later on as the reader sees the symbiotic tie between the devil and Jesus as they decide certain characters’ fate.
The Master and Margarita shows the folly of Soviet repression, but it does not stop at mere cynicism and irony. Bulgakov also illustrates that the devil might watch out for Jesus, and vice versa, i.e., there are more gray areas even in the scripture than one might ordinarily perceive.
The gripping plot surely helps with the read, but Bulgakov’s genius is in the subtle theories and observations he advances throughout this page-turner, forcing a reader to think about what it all means as a grin maliciously spreads across his face.
PS: I was reading the book on the bus in DC one evening. A kid, probably about five, saw the cover and remarked, “The cat has a snake’s tongue. That’s stupid.” Clearly the subtlety was lost on the child, but I still find the comment very amusing. This brings me to a stylistic note: The version I have has the black tom in a suit looking over his left shoulder and slithering his split tongue; similarly, The Heart of a Dog – also by the same author – features a dog in a suit, with his tongue out, and looking over his right shoulder. Just a random note…