The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

masterThe Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov 1966, Penguin 2007, tr: R. Pevear and L. Volonkhsky,

There isn’t another book quite like this one.

One afternoon the Devil enters Moscow and starts a chain of events that leaves chaos and insanity in his wake. In another time Pontinus Pilate chooses between bravery and safety in ancient Judea and finally the courageous Margarita makes a satanic deal to save the man she loves.

This books is a dark blend of absurdity, satire, romance and philosophy and made all the more powerful when considering that Bulgakov risked his life to write the manuscript. Under the Stalinist regime the fear was so great that he burnt the manuscript and then later wrote the whole thing again by heart. The idea that the greatest sin is cowardice is portrayed heavily throughout the book.

Biblical Judea and Stalinist Moscow are the two settings in the story and both are have the suffocating and claustrophobic atmosphere of an extremely oppressive state. The secret police lurk behind the pages of Bulgakov’s novel; always chillingly alluded to but never named outright.

The satanic group and the antics they get up to are dark and comical; beginning with a beheading and on to an empty suit running an office, people bursting into song and unable to stop, the events at the theatre, a cat attempting to buy a tram ticket. Actually most scenes with the cat Behemoth:

But worse things were about to be found in the bedroom: on the jeweller’s wife’s ottoman, in a casual pose, sprawled a third party- namely, a black cat of uncanny size, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had managed to spear a pickled mushroom, in the other.

And then the unsettling darkness under the mischief makers light hearted guises. The ominous disappearances that could happen to anyone in Stalin’s Russia and the fate that befell Ivan the homeless and Pontius Pilate among others.

Music has such an important role in this story that it almost begs to be adapted to screen. In some cases Bulgakov sets the atmosphere by the music; Ivan’s desperate chase after the strange man he meets on a park bench is to the opera Evgeny Onegin, the opera Aida is quoted often, the Queen of Spades is hauntingly sang in a dream and folk songs are played at Satan’s ball. Faust of course plays a major part in the entire novel.

I recommend this edition by Penguin as it has annotations throughout the book.

I’m sorry I haven’t updated in months. I went through a block of being too intimidated to write reviews in case I didn’t do the book justice. Like this one.


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