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May 03, 2006

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita is a great book. I can say that, even though I think I maybe got about 50% of what was going on in it.

What I missed:
- It seems that the book is probably a hilarious, biting satire of Russian society and its people, especially the Russian literati. (I found myself wishing I knew a little more about early-20th century Russia, so I could have gotten more of the jokes.)
- I understand it is also a political commentary on the new Stalinist regime in power at the time it was written. (Had I known a bit more about Russian history, I might have understood why Bulgakov had to keep the book secret in his lifetime. The book wasn't published until 30 years after his death.)

- Much of the book takes its inspiration from the Faust story. Having never read Faust in any version, that went right over my head.
- Finally, there is quite a bit taken from and/or adding to the stories in the New Testament. (I tried to read the Bible -- I only made it as far as the endless censuses in the Old Testament's Judges...)

OK, are you getting the point that this is an incredibly rich novel, built on the timely (political/social commentary) and the timeless (theology/philosophy)?

Beneath all that I missed, there was the literary low-hanging fruit. The book boasts a wildly imaginative story, told at a breakneck pace. The core of the story regards the arrival in Moscow of Satan himself, accompanied by a retinue including mischievous, sometimes murderous, men and a large talking cat. The group immediately begins wreaking havoc on the entire town, performing feats of magic with hilarious consequences -- making one administrator disappear but leaving his suit to continue to perform his duties; turning an entire office into a glee club, singing in harmony against their wills; and even minor tricks like turning paper into 10-ruble notes, which then turn back to paper to all of Moscow's consternation.

But that is only the set up. In fact, the story regards the titular characters of The Master, a frustrated author of a book about Pontius Pilate, and Margarita, his devoted lover/apostle. And meanwhile, Bulgakov smoothly and ingeniously intertwines the book-within-a-book story of Jesus (Yeshua, in this telling) and Pilate -- a different take on the story, in which Pilate begrudgingly sentences a very human-seeming Christ, then has Judas murdered himself, and finally finds himself in Hell (or is it Purgatory), suffering from guilt and the desire to speak to Christ again.

What is most amazing, considering the literary references, theological inquiries, multiple plotlines, and typically confusing Russian patronymics, is how enjoyable this novel is. Its swift-moving story, amusingly detailed characters, and drive towards a tidy and truly satisfying conclusion, all make the book eminently readable.

My biggest question after reading The Master and Margarita was why haven't more people heard of this book?

Posted by JoshHornik at May 3, 2006 03:59 PM


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