Sunday, October 31, 2010

Master and Margarita

by Mikhail Bulgakov

I have been wanting to read this "masterpiece" for many years about Satan's visit to Stalinist Russia. The story opens with two gentlemen having a lively discussion in a Moscow park about whether or not Jesus actually existed when they are joined in the discussion by a foreigner named Woland (aka Satan). From there the story takes off in crazy and unexpected directions that were thoroughly entertaining. Woland (aka Satan) has come to Moscow with his entourage and causes all sorts of trouble especially for the literary and theatrical communities. In another story line we encounter Pontius Pilate on the day that he meets Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus). I don’t want to give much of the plot away as the madcap twists and turns are part of the fun.

This novel can be read on many different levels. It was written in the 1930s in Stalinist Soviet Union but because of the regime’s repressive control of literary works was not published there until 1963. The novel is in many respects a satire of the bureaucratic control of literature. One of the funniest little vignettes is when Woland makes a literary bureaucrat disappear but his suit remains at his desk working away and signing documents without any disruption to the office. In fact the title character, the Master, is a writer who burns his novel for fear of the problems it will cause him with the bureaucracy. Indeed, most of the characters caught up in Woland’s antics are either writers, poets, the literary trade union MASSOLIT or part of the Variety Theater.

But the novel can also be read simply for fun. The plot is just wild and wacky and I also loved the characters. I especially enjoyed Woland’s entourage which includes Behemoth a mischievous black cat that can take on human form, Koroviev an ex choir master, Azazello a fanged assassin, and Hella a beautiful red headed succubus. My favorite character is Margarita, the Master’s lover, who fully embraces whatever situation she may find herself in. My favorite scenes are when Maragarita agrees to help Woland out and is given extraordinary powers which she uses to take revenge on the literary bureaucrat that she blames for the Master’s troubles before she leaves Moscow to serve as the hostess at Satan’s springtime ball.

I also really enjoyed the fact that the novel does not paint Satan, or any of the characters, as simply good or evil. As Woland says "what would your good do if evil did not exist, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?" (p. 360). Good can sometimes come out of evil. For example, Margarita is turned into a witch to host Satan’s ball and in return is given a wish. Instead of asking for something for herself she requests that a women that she has just meet be released from torment. And as we all know, good intentions can often lead to evil, a principle that must have particularly resonated during the Stalinist era.

Apparently this novel has been turned into numerous plays, a movie, a mini series for tv, an opera, a ballet, a graphic novel, a painting and inspiration for songs by Mike Jagger and Pearl Jam. I read this for Carl V’s RIP V challenge and thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks Carl for hosting a great challenge again. Hopefully next year I will have more time to participate.

Tuesday, October 26, 2010


by Roberto Bolano

I finished this book in July and it is almost November and I still haven’t written a review of it. Work has been crazy and we went on vacation etc. and I cannot blame this particular book for putting me so far behind in book write ups, but I must admit that I don’t really know what to say about this book. When it first came out it made quite a sensation so of course I immediately bought it. I started reading it in January and read it in the three sections that my book was divided into with other books in between. This is how Publisher’s Weekly described it:

Last year's The Savage Detectives by the late Chilean-Mexican novelist Bolaño (1953–2003) garnered extraordinary sales and critical plaudits for a complex novel in translation, and quickly became the object of a literary cult. This brilliant behemoth is grander in scope, ambition and sheer page count, and translator Wimmer has again done a masterful job. The novel is divided into five parts (Bolaño originally imagined it being published as five books) and begins with the adventures and love affairs of a small group of scholars dedicated to the work of Benno von Archimboldi, a reclusive German novelist. They trace the writer to the Mexican border town of Santa Teresa (read: Juarez), but there the trail runs dry, and it isn't until the final section that readers learn about Benno and why he went to Santa Teresa. The heart of the novel comes in the three middle parts: in The Part About Amalfitano, a professor from Spain moves to Santa Teresa with his beautiful daughter, Rosa, and begins to hear voices. The Part About Fate, the novel's weakest section, concerns Quincy Fate Williams, a black American reporter who is sent to Santa Teresa to cover a prizefight and ends up rescuing Rosa from her gun-toting ex-boyfriend. The Part About the Crimes, the longest and most haunting section, operates on a number of levels: it is a tormented catalogue of women murdered and raped in Santa Teresa; a panorama of the power system that is either covering up for the real criminals with its implausible story that the crimes were all connected to a German national, or too incompetent to find them (or maybe both); and it is a collection of the stories of journalists, cops, murderers, vengeful husbands, prisoners and tourists, among others, presided over by an old woman seer. It is safe to predict that no novel this year will have as powerful an effect on the reader as this one.
blurb from Publisher’s Weekly via

I am not sure I agree with Publisher Weekly. My favorite parts were the first “The Part About the Critics” which describes the scholars who have devoted their lives to analyzing Archimboldi searching for him in Mexico, and the final “The Part About Archimboldi” where we learn the full life story of the missing author. I thought the first part was extremely funny describing the self absorb scholars and the entire academic world. I also enjoyed the writing style, although some have found it too detailed:
The first conversation began awkwardly, although Espinoza had been expecting Pelletier’s call, as if both men found it difficult to say what sooner or later they would have to say. The first twenty minutes were tragic in tone, with the word fate used ten times and the word friendship twenty-four times. Liz Norton’s name was spoken fifty times, nine of them in vain. The word Paris was said seven times, Madrid, eight. The word love was spoken twice and the word happiness once (by Espinoza). The word solution was said twelve times…The word euphemism ten times…. The words eyes or hands or hair fourteen times.
I thought this was a much more interesting way to convey the gist of the conversation without actually telling us what was said. I also thoroughly enjoyed the long and complicated Archimboldi story.

I found the Part About the Crimes by far the weakest part and had to force myself to get through it. I knew going in that it was going to be lengthy and overwhelming with incident after incident of murder and rape recounted but I had not anticipated that it would be so boring. Far from bringing home the horror of the crimes it simply made me blaise. Or perhaps that was the point, I don’t know. I just kept thinking he needed an editor.

I am glad that I read it but it certainly wasn’t one of my more memorable reads this year (other than the fact that it took up so much of my reading time). I might consider reading the Savage Detectives but am not rushing to do so.