Note: This review was written a while back on Goodreads, but I’m reprinting it here for my usual audience’s benefit.
Mikhail Bulgakov is not a Russian writer you’ve probably heard of, not like Tolstoy or Dostoevsky. But he is notable for being a Russian novelist whose main work, a magic realism story about the Devil wreaking havoc on the lives of ordinary Soviet citizens, was banned in the USSR. And besides that, it’s a story that features a black tomcat who drinks vodka and plays tricks on people.
In all honesty, that second line might have had more of an influence on me than the first (I’m a sucker for cats these days).
The Master and Margarita is the story about a series of strange occurrences in Soviet Moscow, when a foreigner named Professor Woland and his retinue arrive to play tricks and sow chaos wherever they go. This Woland, however, is no mere mortal, but Satan himself in disguise. He seduces away a mortal woman named Margarita from her lover–a poor writer who later goes by “The Master”–and uses her to seduce others on his behalf and embarrass many respectable citizens with her charms and frequent nudity. And yet it’s Margarita who proves to be essential to resolving the plot–her love for the Master is what saves her, as does her sympathy for other human beings.
Reading The Master and Margarita requires some mental gymnastics and more than a little patience for Western readers, but it isn’t a bad novel. I don’t think it’s the best thing ever, but it has some spirit if nothing else. The key thing to remember is that this is a story that pokes fun at the way ordinary citizens and authority figures think when things go wrong. Its use of slapstick is pretty good, bringing sheer chaos and turning over assumptions in every corner of Moscow. It’s Bulgakov’s jab at Soviet discipline and rationalism, using a Satanic ensemble of tricksters to elude the authorities and turn everyone hysterical.
The central tension in this novel is the conflict between the materialism of everyday Russia and the supernatural intervention of the Devil and his assistants. While the State is trying to strip away religion and superstition, Bulgakov brings it back into vogue by making the Devil a main character and taking frequent “flashbacks” to Pontius Pilate and the last days of Christ. I actually like the passages that touch on this tension of faith versus rationalism. However, the story at times becomes an endurance contest of how many more demonic tricks and cons can be pulled before the end of the book. As good as the slapstick can get, it does get a little tiring and holds the plot back.
I’d recommend this story if you want to know a little more about 1930s Russia and enjoy some light Soviet satire. But if you’re not a patient reader, you might find yourself drifting away from the central theme.
Bibliography: Bulgakov, Mikhail. The Master and Margarita. Trans. Mirra Ginsburg. New York: Grove Press, 1967 (1997 renewal).