The Master and Margarita may be one of the lesser known modern Russian classics, but it is one of the strangest, most deeply thought provoking and side-splittingly funny novels that came out of the Soviet Union. Taking it’s inspiration from Goethe’s Faust, it is all at once a parable of good and evil, a passionate love story across heaven, earth and hell, an outcry against political oppression… and a slapstick comedy.
There are three main story lines. The first is set in 1930’s Moscow, where Satan (under the guise of a professor named Woland) and his band of charismatic demons have paid a visit to evaluate the state of the souls of the people of Moscow. They do this by playing tricks that reveal whether deep down, the recipients are truly good or evil people. These tricks become increasingly sinister, but no less funny in their execution, ranging from making ladies clothes disappear to the gruesome decapitation of a famous literary critic whose head is literally ‘popped off’. With his detached air of superiority, alongside an almost languid depression and an undercurrent of insanity, Woland is a deeply compelling character. His demons provide the comedy throughout the novel and it is almost worth reading just for the character Behemoth, an impossibly huge, walking, talking, cheeky black cat that gorges itself, plays chess, has a penchant for fine vodka and enjoys inciting riots.
The second storyline is within a story that Woland tells, set in Jerusalem 2000 years ago. Woland recollects the true story of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua, a Jesus like-figure. This is the heart of the novel, where all fantasy is stripped away and the gritty, real state of being human and having to make moral choices is revealed. The good and evil facets of human nature are examined through the superbly, and heart-wrenchingly written character of Pilate. Pilate’s guilt over the execution of the innocent moral philosopher Yeshua drives him to the brink of insanity; his torment is one so strong that it echoes through the ages and reverberates back into the modern world of 1930’s Moscow, and into the life and mind of the Master.
The Master is a writer whose life’s work, an epic novel, just happens to be the true story of Pilate and Yeshua and after falling prey to censorship and burning his book he has been incarcerated in an insane asylum. After the Master’s disappearance, his lover Margarita asks Satan and his demons for help to find him, leading to a short spell as a hostess at a ball for the inhabitants of hell. Here, the nature of sin, good and evil and their place in human nature is examined through the stories and punishments of the damned guests of the Ball.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is quite a long and complex novel to follow, not only because of the intertwining narratives, but the Russian names are deliberately similar to try and confuse you! What makes this novel so unique and worth a read is the fact that it’s principal character, Satan, is grotesque and infinitely powerful, a character to be both feared and respected, yet one who is also very funny, loveable and sympathetic. This is a book to read when you feel like getting really stuck into something!
Note: The Master and Margarita has been translated from Russian to English many times, and in some the quality of Bulgakov’s writing has been lost, so I would recommend getting a copy that has been translated by Michael Glenny and published by Vintage.
The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov, Vintage Classics (1940/2009)