MIKHAIL BULGAKOV’S THE MASTER AND MARGARITA IS A RUSSIAN CLASSIC OF THE 1930s. It presents an extraordinary surrealist vision in which the Devil comes to Moscow and unmasks the vanity and venality of the literary establishment. This is interspersed with an historic account of the life of Pontius Pilate, penned by the eponymous Master of the title, setting off a divine-diabolic counterpoint woven with story-telling skill and imaginative fireworks – literally, since the ending has Moscow ablaze – of a true ‘master’ – Bulgakov himself.
Written in the darkness of Stalinism, the book was not published until 1967 and has been regarded as a classic ever since. The improbable plot features the Devil, called Woland, and his acolytes: the cat Behemoth (a demonic version of Puss in Boots) and a fanged assassin, Azzazello, as well as a witch, Hella. Starting innocuously enough with a conversation in the park between Woland and a literary bureaucrat, Berlioz (called after the composer of the Damnation of Faust), and a poet, Bezdomny (Homeless), about belief – proceeding through Berlioz’s death under a tram and Bezdomny’s incarceration in a lunatic asylum, where he meets the Master of the title – the plot progresses to the theatrical performance of magic by the Devil and his crew, which ends up with respectable ladies parading down the street in their underwear and an influx of fake foreign currency: an apt metaphor for the funny money of capitalism within the socialist economy. The resulting scandal reduces all of Moscow to chaos, with the miscreants appropriating Berlioz’s flat. In a reworking of the Faust story, Margarita signs her soul over to the Devil to save her beloved Master and his book about Pontius Pilate and ‘Yeshua’, a revisionist portrait of Jesus. Acting as hostess for the Devil’s Grand Ball, she is granted her wish and she and the Master float away from Moscow into peace.
The book has a relentless pace and an impossible plot but, once the reader enters Bulgakov’s world, it is irresistible. It is immensely rich: in literary (Goethe) and musical (Berlioz, Gounod) allusions; in characterisation – the unkillable cat, Behemoth, is a masterly creation; in social satire, especially of the writers, critics and theatre impresarios who had reduced Bulgakov to despair; in philosophical discussion, about Kant and about belief.
I could not help noting that Bulgakov’s book is based on a concept remarkably similar to that of the carnivalesque employed by the Russian literary critic, Bakhtin. Although neither Bulgakov nor Bakhtin seem to have known each other’s work, their visions of an alternative voice to the Stalinist establishment have much in common. Bakhtin writes of a class of literature that celebrates the sensuous and multi-voiced exuberance of life, contrasting that with monologic official, authoritative, discourse. Such a dichotomy would be very pertinent to the stuffy, quotidian, bureaucratic and stifling life of Stalin’s Russia in which Bulgakov wrote. Stalin exiled Bakhtin to Kazakhstan. He used the manuscript of his magnum opus, The Dialogic Imagination, to roll his cigarettes. Bulgakov, too, burnt the first manuscript of his book and left a quote that has entered the Russian language – ‘manuscripts don’t burn’. Indeed, fire is an almost constant metaphor for the hellish goings-on initiated by the anarchistic magician, Woland.
Massive details of setting and description co-exist with a breathless weaving together of numerous sub-plots, and the Pilate chapters themselves – a revisionist picture of Jesus, Pilate and St. Matthew – are of intrinsic interest. The book is one of the earliest examples of the genre of magical realism, which inspired stalwarts of South American writing such as Marquez and Carpentier.
This is one classic that truly deserves the accolade it has received and is well worth book-marking for the year just begun.
– Golden Langur