Before I dive into this fully (and there is a lot to dive into), I will note that this is the first book I read on the Sony Reader. I was worried that my eyes might get tired or something like reading a computer screen, but the E-Ink technology really is pretty good. I use the Pocket E-Reader which means I don’t get wi-fi or a touch screen. On the other hand, the reader is very compact, and the managing of the books is easy. If I dive more into the Gutenberg project, this will be invaluable. Anyway, now for the review.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, the #1 on Keith Law’s 100 Greatest Novels list, is a savage satire of life in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Of course, like any good novel, it does not stop with the tone of satire, but instead also touches notes of sadness and hope in its parallel stories. In particular, Bulgakov spins a tale of Moscow under the enforced atheism (consider the deep irony of that turn of phrase) of the Communist regime – and speculates about what would happen if Satan visited.
Indeed, Satan DOES visit – and descends upon Berlioz, the head of the state sponsored literary guild, and Ivan, a poet who is writing atheistic poetry for the State. The Devil talks to Berlioz about being witness to the execution of Jesus, and tells the story of Pontius Pilate, the governor of Rome who oversees said execution. And (I am not giving anything away here), the Devil summarily predicts how Berlioz will die. Berlioz pooh poohs what he sees, and indeed … well, no points for figuring out what happens.
In a lot of ways, a one sentence description of The Master and Margarita could be “the Devil starts some shit in Moscow”, and the first half of the novel is dedicated to Satan’s causing mischief – exposing people’s dirty laundry, sending others to death, culminating with a lovely scene where he gives clothes to all the women in town and rather inconveniently takes them all away. Bulgakov has fun with this savaging, and as a reader, it is actually quite breezy.
However, at the second book, we start discovering a sadder tale. We learn of the Master, a guy who was divined Pontius Pilate’s story and is engulfed by the effort to write the book. In this story, Bulgakov is less satirical, and we see a man who is holding up free thought (in this manifestation, non-atheism). As the master is engulfed he eventually leaves his wife, the Margarita of the story, and she has spent her time waiting for him to return, or living in suspended animation as he is all that matters to her.
What works throughout the novel is Bulgakov’s imagery – that of Satan, Margarita. The novel is clearly contemporary to its time. Particularly audacious is Bulgakov’s portrayals of Jesus and Satan. In fact, Satan could be argued to be the real protagonist in the story. The Master and Margarita’s fate is essentially adjudicated by Satan and his crew, and indeed they are not presented as simply evil personified. While nobody would confuse Bulgakov’s Devil with Martin Luther King, he is much more nuanced than an instrument of evil. Really he seems more a messenger of the divine message than anything – someone to smite those so aggressively denying the existence of God … and perhaps by extension less the existence of any other mode of thinking than a state sponsored one.
Is this the greatest novel of all time? What is tough when you get to these sorts of lists is personal criteria, and so much of the context and knowledge of reservoir literature of the time is important. Bulgakov references the Bible and Dostoyevsky and classic Russial Literature, all allusions that are less resonant to yours truly than to others. While this limits its “super greatness” to me, even not being 100% familiar with everything out there, it is still a very good read. Bulgakov’s passion and sense of justice drive the story along, and the wit and irony are there, even if a reader (like me) does not know ALL of the nooks and crannies. It is very readable for a “classic” (even with the textured weaving of the Jesus, Moscow and Master threads), and definitely a worthwhile book to get around to – if nothing else as a useful artifact of what Communism was like from the inside.