Title: The Master and Margarita
Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Genre: Fiction, classics, satire, magical realism
Where I got the book: I purchased this book through Book Depository.
My rating: ★★★★☆
Summary: One summer afternoon in 1930s Moscow, the Devil enters the city with his infernal entourage. They wreak havoc by targeting the literary elite and its corrupt trade union. Meanwhile, in a parallel story set in ancient Jerusalem, we follow Pontius Pilate’s trial and execution of Yeshua Ha-Nozri. Together, these two distinct but interwoven storylines present a satire of Soviet society.
“Kindly consider the question: what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it? Shadows are cast by objects and people. Here is the shadow of my sword. Trees and living beings also have shadows. Do you want to skin the whole earth, tearing all the trees and living things off it, because of your fantasy of enjoying bare light? You’re stupid.”
– The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
“The Master and Margarita” is set during several summer days where Moscow is visited by Satan himself, known in the novel as Professor Woland, and his entourage consisting of two disfigured assistants, a naked witch, and a giant, talking black cat. Through a series of black magic séances he exposes the vanity and greed of Moscow’s literary elite. However, what Woland really seeks is Margarita, an unhappily married woman who loves a man known only as the Master. The Master is the author of a novel about Pontius Pilate, but after his manuscript was turned down he secretly commits himself to a mental asylum. At Woland’s invitation, Margarita literally goes through hell to find her beloved Master.
This novel was written between 1928 and 1940, but remained unpublished as a single volume until 1967, long after Bulgakov’s death. The uncensored version was published as late as 1973. Bulgakov started writing during the period of forced collectivization and the first five-year plan, which was when the people of Soviet suffered the most. The same struggle was reflected in literature, and while Bulgakov wasn’t arrested, he was excluded to the point where he could no longer publish his work. “The Master and Margarita” can be considered a political criticism and a satire about Bulgakov’s Soviet, but it is also the result of a writer who simply wanted to practice his art in a society that had his work banned. In addition to this, through Woland’s exposure of the elite it also explores humanity and its Godlessness, as well as the greed, deceit, and cowardice of human nature.
I have to admit I was a little worried when I started reading this and realized it was rather footnote-heavy. I’ve actually never read any Russian literature before and based on that alone I already had some preconceptions about this being a challenging novel. Truth is, this is a thoroughly enjoyable read! It’s quirky, weird, entertaining, and witty. Granted, it’s a pretty wild ride and some absolutely ridiculous sh*t goes down, so my best advice is to just go with it, but overall this is just what I’d expect from a satire. I’ve also never read magical realism quite like this before, it’s so direct and in-your-face, not subtle at all, and I really like that.
The amount of knowledge and historical information that has been worked into this book is astounding, and for that reason I’m happy that all the footnotes are included. There’s so much interesting knowledge to gain about the Soviet Union – about anything, really – but it is mostly hidden between the lines. I wouldn’t have stood a chance recognizing all the references hadn’t it been for the footnotes guiding me. I feel like I learned a lot and I’m glad, because the more additional information I got, the more I realized that beneath the comical and the surreal, this book also represents the fear that prevailed under Stalin’s rule. For instance, there are several examples in this book of reporting and questioning “suspicious citizens”.
The writing in this novel is grand and intense; I feel that’s the only way I can most accurately describe it. It takes some getting used to, at least it did for me, but combined with this fascinatingly strange story it’s definitely riveting. I love the fact that this book is an example of a story within a story and that the writing style changes accordingly. The two parallel worlds of contemporary Moscow and ancient Jerusalem is a bit confusing at first because it’s hard to immediately see any kind of connection, it just seems so random. It later turns out that the Master is writing a novel about Pontius Pilate and in a way we’re reading excerpts from this novel. The writing in the Jerusalem story is noticeably more subdued and somber. The book’s two storylines converge towards the end.
My favorite thing about “The Master and Margarita” as a whole is without a doubt its characters. The character gallery is large but diverse and filled with all sorts of odd personalities. I have to admit it was a bit difficult to tell everyone apart at times. Some names tend to sound similar, and first names, last names, and nicknames are used interchangeably, which is a little confusing. However, the main characters are easy to distinguish and that’s the most important thing. I also love the wide range of emotions that actually shows through Bulgakov’s writing. The Moscow story especially moves along at a breakneck speed, but you get dry wit and sarcasm, hilarious comedy, and sadness and depression, all of it side by side.
I’m giving this a very strong 4-star rating and I’m only holding back because there were parts in the second half that I didn’t find as gripping or interesting as the rest. However, I think this is the kind of book you’ll love more and more with every reread. I highly recommend everyone to give this classic a go. It’s such a uniquely written and layered read that is deeply serious and historically rich beneath its wild and hilarious comedy.