Following on from my ‘easy read’ The Winter Queen, I wanted to read a more established Russian classic, and settled on Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. The novel, which is as complex as it is famous, was recommended to me not only because it is regarded very highly, but also because it paints a picture of life in the Soviet Union.
Surprisingly, the novel is not centrally about Master and Margarita. In fact, Margarita doesn’t even appear until the second part of the book. Although I found this very confusing, there was enough other material to occupy me- gruesome deaths, interesting foreshadowing, magic, and a detailed description of how an ordered, bureaucratic system attempts to deal with the supernatural. But most of all I liked the character of Dr. Woland, an incarnation of the devil himself, who is first introduced to us by joining an amiable conversation about the existence, or lack of existence of Jesus. Woland has come to Moscow for what seems to be a variety of reasons; to test the Moscovites, to hold a ball, and centrally, to find Margarita.
There are a variety of individuals who face Woland personally who are tested- but primarily in the first part the entire Soviet system is analysed and exposed. Through a theatre show Woland reveals that although Socialism has brought about a ‘new man’ and ‘new woman’, these are as greedy, corrupt and impulse driven as those before, their base interests remain the same, their vanity and lust for material goods and power is unchanged. As characters are punished for their ‘transgressions’ against the Communist system, the reader is also exposed to the painful double-think, and the injustice of the situations which have often been caused by Woland.
Accompanying the ‘Doctor’ Woland are a variety of figures that are as far as I can tell, representatives of different fears. Taking on the shapes and figures of different supernatural and strange characters including a large black cat and a completely naked girl, or a man with a fang protruding from his mouth, these characters act out Wolands commands. Bulgakov however also spends significant time and words creating individual characters for these henchmen, humorous, silly as in the case of the cat, or compassionate but short tempered and brutal is in the case of Azazello.
Bulgakov also focusses on the plight of the poet in this society- all authors in the text spend at least some time in a mental asylum, and most die (only the critic remains, locked up in the madhouse). They are persecuted for what they have written, ridiculed, and finally reduced to drug-dependent residents of the asylum, subject to hallucinations and wanderings. This new vulnerability reveals their previous dependency on society for recognition and success, strips away the pride in their art, and renders them childish and weak. Only the Master, clinging to the memory of Margarita and still believing in this passion (having abandoned his art), manages to appear at least somewhat sane and self-aware.
Margarita comes into the story and becomes the centre of attention when we learn of the love affair between the Master and this ‘young woman’. Part two of the book becomes an exploration of suffering for love. This narrative is paralleled with the tale of Pontius Pilate, Matthew the Levite, and the suffering Jesus himself, who face similar quests for enlightenment, and bear great pain out of love. Ultimately, Margarita proves that she is willing to sell her soul to the devil to be reunited with her lover, and this brings the two of them together- when Jesus and the Devil agree to set them free together in Death. Others are also released from their suffering- minor characters, who are deemed to have paid their dues such as Pontius Pilate himself. Bizarrely, the road to peace seems to be the way of the Devil- , Matthew argues that the master does not deserve ‘eternal light’ in the afterlife, but rather should ‘rest’, and that therefore the Devil should take him. Margarita, unsurprisingly, is happy in the end- reunited with her lover, reborn with new power, escaped from her dreary life. The Master, too, is at peace, having finally settled the score with his novel.
And the reader? The reader wonders a bit about the heavy religious symbolism, the ideas of redemption, and the fact that damnation only seems to be present in the chaos on earth… and realises that it’s been a long time since she’s read such high-brow literature, and that this is more of a summary than a review.