I’ve just finished this month’s book club book — Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Wow. Wow. Wow. What an incredible book. I almost don’t know where to start; such was the impact it has made upon me.
I had left a lot of pages to read this week to hit book club deadline but Bulgakov took me on a breathless journey through the natural and supernatural, effortlessly mixing magical realism, horror, comedy, satire and social commentary. I don’t recall a book so bold in its ambition for quite some time. Here’s the thing: I certainly didn’t expect this journey from this book but it has so many facets and functions on a narrative level incredibly well – rolling along at a rollicking pace, twisting and turning.
First up, I absolutely loved the interplay between Stalin’s Moscow and biblical Judea – at first I thought this was just an enjoyably random flourish but as the story unfolded about the master’s book about Pontius Pilate, it was a touch of genius. The intimate portrait of Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus), the subsequent execution and beyond were powerfully written and provided a poignant counterpoint to the chaotic shenanigans going on in Moscow when Satan comes to town.
At first the Russian name thing – everyone is called Ivan – slowed me a little but as the story develops, but Bulgakov clearly identifies and describes each character so vividly that I found it really easy to remember who was who (which hasn’t always been the case with other Russian literature).
The translation and language used was fantastic. It captures a period language perfectly that really contributes to the overall experience and my version was from Penguin Books translated by Richard Povear and Larissa Volokhonsky. I particularly admired how they used odd words when they could have used more straightforward ones: in one place when describing how someone was ripped off by another instead of using conned or swindled (which in themselves are good slang options) they used ‘diddled’. This made me laugh and this happens all over the place. By contrast, another sublime example of language is where the soldier finally kills Christ on the cross, Bulgakov employs the incredibly economic and powerful ‘..he pricked his heart with a spear…’
The broad themes of greed, corruption, lust, desire, jealousy, envy, pride (smack bang in seven deadly sins territory) were all there to see and Bulgakov uses these to shine a light on atheistic communist Moscow of this time. I think he uses the allegory of the devil coming to Moscow as a way of describing how he felt evil has been visited upon the people in the form of Stalin’s oppression. The mysterious Woland (Satan) and his crew bring out the very worst of the people with pinpoint accuracy and deliver retribution in all manner of forms from turning Roubles into whimsical wine labels to dishing out instant death.
So what about Woland and his outlandish cohorts Behemoth, Azazillo and Koroviev? What a vividly drawn bunch of characters – at once spine chilling and hilarious. Quite apart from the fact they were meting out appalling justice all over the place, I liked them immensely. The dark world of this demonic retinue was beautifully drawn and allowed the reader to picture it in every detail. Stunning images were created like a desktop globe with real oceans and wars taking place on it to a live chess set with Kings swapping places with Bishops – delightful. Terry Gilliam sprung to mind.
The enigma of Woland, almost enticing us to empathise with him near the end, the dark comedy of Behemoth the black cat, the iciness of the assassin Azazello and the Beetlejuice-esque Koroviev…all wonderful.
And what of the eponymous Master and Margarita? Well for me it was all about Margarita, particularly in the second book. Her pure love for the master outlives her sensuous transition into the supernatural. The ointment rubbing, apartment smashing, broomstick flying, witch transformation is up there as one of the most exhilarating passages I’ve ever read. Satan’s spring ball where all manner of denizens of the underworld turn up was a virtuoso set piece too – I lapped up every macabre, fantastical detail.
So – a complex book, doing lots of things, all on different levels. As one of our number said, a book to be studied for sure.
Master and Margarita has a touching love story at the heart of it (with a satisfying, otherworldly happy ending) told against the backdrop of razor sharp social commentary. There is a series of sub plots play throughout highlighting the moral and spirituality dimension of life in a city that isn’t supposed to believe in Satan (or God for that matter).
Bulgakov doesn’t shy away from the big themes – redemption, retribution, responsibility and ultimately good versus evil. But he doesn’t just dish these up without charm or context – he wraps them in an engaging, entertaining and ultimately daring package.
Note: I scored it 10/10 – which doesn’t happen very often for me (Grapes of Wrath and Frankenstein being the only books to get full marks previously).