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.

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