The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov

The devil has many names. In this novel, he is a black magician. A consultant. A translator, a spy and Satan.

I think he could also be called government.

For Mikhail Bulgakov seems to take on Satan and the Soviet in equal measure.

Perhaps I am ill equipped to write a review on this fantastic and lyrical novel, laden with Russian culture with which I have little experience. All I can leave are my impressions, for much like Haruki Murakami’s Kafka on The Shore, this is a novel which I will need to read more than once. And each time, I’m certain, I will gain  more understanding.

However, my edition is stuck full of little tabs, and it is a few of these marked passages which I will comment upon here:

A diminutive elderly gentleman with an unusually sad face, wearing an old-fashioned tussore-silk suit and a stiff straw had with a green band, was coming up the stairs. He stopped near Poplavsky.

“May I ask you, citizen,” the man in tussore-silk inquired sadly, “where is the apartment No. 50?”

“Upstairs,” was Poplavsky’s abrupt reply.’

“My humble thanks, sir,” the man replied, equally as sadly, and proceeded up the stairs, while Poplavsky got up from the bench and ran downstairs.

The question arises: did Maximilian Andreyevich rush off to the police station to lodge a complaint against the thugs who had brutalized him so savagely in broad daylight? Emphatically, no, not at all, that can be said with confidence. To go to the police and say that a cat wearing glasses had just examined your passport, and that a man in tights, with a knife had…No citizens, Maximilian Andreyevich was far too smart for that! (p. 170)

The devil and his assistants (the cat, for one) create a destruction which cannot be believed. The minute a victim tries to identify what has happened, he is labelled as crazy; indeed several have ended up in the psych ward. They are being observed, and sedated, because no one can believe their stories. A cat, a black magician, a man in a jockey cap and pince-nez, do not do the things these victims claim. Therefore, the victims have no where to turn. The government does not believe them, the health care system does not believe them. They are left to wonder if in fact they are crazy, while the three continue to wreak havoc within Moscow.

Margarita Nikolayevna was putting her coat on in the front hall, getting ready to go out for a walk. The beautiful Natasha, her maid, asked her what she wanted for dinner, and when she said she didn’t care, for amusement, Natasha began a casual conversation with her mistress, and started relating God knows what, something about a magician at the theater yesterday who had performed astounding tricks, handing out free bottles of imported perfume and stockings, and then how, after the show, when everyone was out on the street, abracadabra-they were all naked! Margarita Nikolayevna collapsed on the chair beneath the hall mirror and burst out laughing.

“Natasha! Shame on you,” said Margarita, “a girl like you who knows how to read; people in lines make up the devil knows what, and here you go repeating it!” (p. 189)

Imagine receiving imported perfume (Guerlain’s Mitsouko, one of my favorites, is included here), new lilac shoes, a wonderful new dress…and then discovering you have nothing at all. Even the bills which flutter down from the magician’s show are only so much paper. They are utterly worthless when the bundles are later closely examined. What can this mean but to show us the devil’s empty promises? We eagerly receive something we want, and end up holding nothing at all when it is given by him.

It is not until page 305 that Woland (the black magician, spy, devil, and assorted other names he has been called throughout the novel) is at last appropriately named:

“Hah”! exclaimed Woland, looking mockingly at the man who had entered. “You’re the last person one would have expected to see here! What brings you here, uninvited, but expected guest?”

“I’ve come to see you, Spirit of Evil and Sovereign of the Shadows,” replied the man, looking sullenly at Woland from under his furrowed brows.

“If you’ve come to see me, then why haven’t you greeted me and wished me well, former tax collector?” said Woland in a stern voice.

“Because I don’t want you to be well,” was the newcomer’s impudent reply.

Interspersed within the pages of this novel, largely a story of the devil’s visit to Moscow, is the imaginatively interpreted story of Yeshua, Pontius Pilate, and Yershalaim. It is an approximation of the text found in the New Testament, but deviated just enough to be Bulgakov’s own interpretation. One in which he intimates that one who is there wears a white cloak with a red lining (Woland? Satan?) and that Christ dies at the hands of the “cruel fifth procurator of Judea, the knight Pontius Pilate.” (p. 325)

In my opinion, Bulgakov is examining the world’s woes, the forces of evil and the ineptitude of government, while also telling a story of love. One in which the lady is willing to sell her soul to the devil in order to be with the Master she loves.

(I read this novel for tuesday‘s Russian in November literature month.)

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9 thoughts on “The Master and Margarita by Bulgakov”

  1. I think what alarms me the most, besides the force of evil and its allure, is the way our government seems in many ways to mimic Bulgakov's. People are bought, as you say; or worse, they give up power for things which they feel entitled to.

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  2. I think what surprised me most when I re-read it this year is just how funny some of the scary scenes are, very dark humour but it's there all the same. Bits like the tenants in a tower block being disappeared by the secret police over the space of the week and the neighbours loudly telling each other it's down to witchcraft for example.

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  3. I often feel lost while trying to place The Master and Margarita in a certain genre. It can be seen as a philosophical satire, a love story, as well as an adventure/fantasy. A surprisingly witty and multicolored package.

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