Thursday, 7 August 2014

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Mikhail Bulgakov's devastating satire of Soviet life was written during the darkest period of Stalin's regime. Combining two distinct yet interwoven parts-one set in ancient Jerusalem, one in contemporary Moscow-the novel veers from moods of wild theatricality with violent storms, vampire attacks & a Satanic ball; to such somber scenes as the meeting of Pilate & Yeshua, & the murder of Judas in the moonlit garden of Gethsemane; to the substanceless, circus-like reality of Moscow. Its central characters, Woland (Satan) & his retinue-including the vodka-drinking, black cat, Behemoth; the poet, Ivan Homeless; Pontius Pilate; & a writer known only as The Master, & his passionate companion, Margarita, exist in a world that blends fantasy & chilling realism, an artful collage of grostesqueries, dark comedy & timeless ethical questions.
From Goodreads description

I have been looking forward to reviewing this book ever since I started this blog. It is quite simply my favourite book (magic realist or other) of all time. If One Hundred Years of Solitude opened my eyes to magic realism, then this book opened my heart and mind. 
And yet here I sit, with my hands paused above the keyboard, trying to find an approach to this review. It is simply impossible to do the book justice in a short blog post. There are so many aspects to it that merit discussion, preferably long discussions in front of an open fire with a glass in one's hand. I have read this book at least three times and each time I see and understand new things.  It is as if the book keeps changing, like the demonic characters in the book - Woland is described as having a limp in the right leg, the left leg, and no limp at all. He is short and then he is tall.  
Over the past two years I have often wondered how The Master and Margarita fits in with the various definitions of magic realism. At times I questioned whether it might better be described as surrealist satire, even fantasy - indeed it is sometimes described as such. If it is magic realism then why aren't some fantasies such as Neil Gaiman's American Gods?  Isn't there too much magic (including conventional fantasy characters, such as witches on broom sticks) and not enough realism? But as I have read Master and Margarita again, I have felt more at ease with its inclusion in the magic realist canon.

The context in which this book was written is crucial to understanding it. The book was so dangerous that (like the Master) Bulgakov burnt an early version of it. In Stalinist Russia it was necessary to write a book that was full of smoke and mirrors and yet it also needed to ring true.  In a totalitarian regime magic realism is a necessity.  

At the same time life in a totalitarian state can be surreal. If the great leader says something is black then it is black, even if it is white. Senior leaders disappear from state photographs and it is as if they didn't exist. History is rewritten. This is the world that Bulgakov is satirizing. It is a world that claims to be rational and realist and yet refuses to acknowledge what is happening in front of its eyes.  Only Margarita and the Master accept the fact that Woland is Satan and what is really happening and only they are unscathed by encountering black magic. All the other inhabitants of Moscow who appear in the novel are taught a lesson by Woland and his acolytes. 

The book opens with a quotation from Goethe's great drama Faust:

"Say at last - who art thou?"
"That Power I serve
Which wills forever evil
Yet does forever good." 

It seems to me that this quotation is crucial to the understanding of the book.  The question is Faust's and the answer that the demon Mephistopheles. Woland and his crew may be diabolical but in the grotesque carnivalesque world of this wonderful novel everything is turned on its head and black can truly be whiteSome Christians will find this book hard to stomach with its portrayal of the Devil as a necessary good/evil. But as Woland says: What would your good do if evil didn't exist, and what would the earth look like if all the shadows disappeared? After all, shadows are cast by things and people. I have noted elsewhere in this blog that two features of magic realism are ambiguity and duality. Both are at the heart of this book. 

The world of Stalin's Moscow is set alongside that of Pilate's Jerusalem. In both there is authoritarian rule, secret police, people afraid of speaking the truth about power (with the exception of Yeshua/Jesus), and people betraying others for money. What binds these two strands together is the Master's novel about Pilate. The most famous line in The Master and Margarita is probably manuscripts do not burn.  And yet the Master burns his manuscript and Woland burns it again at the end of the novel. This is a book about a book and about writing. Clearly there is a reference here to Bulgakov's own manuscripts: the one he burnt and the final one that was published after his death. It is a statement of how the book continues to exist within the writer and his readers. And it is also a book within a book. The Master's novel is not complete and must be finished to provide the resolution of Bulgakov's book. I have always found the conclusion of The Master and Margarita to be particularly haunting and at the same time almost uniquely satisfying.  


1 comment:

Laura (Literate Thoughts) said...

I've had this on my TBR for awhile and your review just bumped it up several slots! Thanks for such a concise summary.