Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Translator: Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky
Publisher: Penguin Books
Publishing Date: 2016
Number of Pages: 396
Genre: Magical Realism, Satirical, Romance, Historical Metafiction
Nothing in the whole of literature compares with The Master and Margarita. One spring afternoon, the Devil, trailing file and chaos in his wake, weaves himself out of the shadows and into Moscow. Mikhail Bulgakov’s fantastical, funny, and devastating satire of Soviet life combines two distinct yet interwoven parts, one set in contemporary Moscow, the other in ancient Jerusalem, each brimming with historical, imaginary, frightful, and wonderful characters. Written during the darkest days of Stalin’s reign, and finally published in 1966 and 1967, the Master and Margarita became a literary phenomenon, signaling artistic and spiritual freedom for Russians everywhere.
Without a doubt that Russian writers have established themselves as master storytellers. Leo Tolstoy, Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Ivan Turgenev and Nikolai Gogol, to name a few, are just amongst this great breed of literary masters. Their works are some of the most studied and most praised. A journey into the deep world of literature is not complete without crossing paths with one of their amazing works. Dostoyevsky’s Crime and Punishment and The Brothers Karamazov, and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina are some of the deepest literary pieces I have encountered.
But there is another writer whose work redefined his era. Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita is the toast of its era. Written during the Joseph Stalin-era Russia, it is Bulgakov’s gift to the world of literature. Unfortunately, due to strict censorship on all propogandist works, The Master and Margarita never saw the light of day until 1967, years after Bulgakov’s demise. Even when it was published during the Soviet era, it was still censored; the full version was published years later. When it was published, it became an instant sensation, giving a peek into Stalin era Russia.
In The Master and Margarita, Bulgakov weaved two simultaneous tales which were set in two contrasting period – 1930s Moscow and Jesus era Jerusalem. The first tale related the evils that has slowly wrapped and taken constitution over the elites of the Russian literary world. The second tale, meanwhile, is an allusion to Jesus Christ’s journey to Calvary Hill. The glaring contrast between these two tales makes one question Bulgakov’s intentions but as one immerses deeper into the narrative, the two tales merge into a coherent story.
“You pronounced your words as if you don’t acknowledge the shadows, or the evil either. Would you be so kind as to give a little thought to the question of what your good would be doing if evil did not exist, and how the earth would look if the shadows were to disappear from it?” ~ Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
The primary characters in the story are the Master and Margarita. The former is an author whose manuscript about Jesus was resoundingly rejected by publishers. Because of this rejection, he turned his back against the world, including his lover, Margarita. He got caught up in his own madness and ended up being locked up in an asylum where he later met Ivan Ponyrev, a young poet who witnessed the death of Berlioz, the atheist head of Moscow’s literary bureaucracy, Massolit. However, the most interesting character is Woland and his motley crew. Woland and his crew wreaked havoc in Moscow, targeting members of Moscow’s literary elite, and corrupt social climbers and bureaucrats. These different personalities all converge to complete a stacked narrative that satisfies the active reader’s imagination.
Because of the richness and the complexity of subjects Bulgakov depicted in his annus mirabilis, it has become open to several interpretations. On top of these interpretations is the book’s numerous allusions to religion and different religious figures, such as Jesus, Satan, and atheism. In the midst of these subjects, Bulgakov shed light on the diminishing spirits of Moscow’s literary elites, and of Russians in general, during Stalin’s reign; atheism was its highest form. The fully atheistic Russia has become prompted Woland’s visit. Yes, Woland, is a personification of the devil; he is Lucifer if you’ll have it. After reading the novel, I understand why the cat is always used in the book’s cover.
Bulgakov played on a plethora of contrasting themes, good and evil, and light and darkness, first and foremost. He depicted how evil is as present as goodness is; good and evil coexist within all of us. Despite the treacherous tendencies of people, we often look beyond it because we always try to see the goodness in others. When Yeshua was bearing his cross, Pontius Pilate subtly pointed out Judas’ betrayal but Yeshua looked beyond it. It is human nature to look beyond one’s imperfections. The interplay between good and evil is depicted all throughout the novel with varying degrees.
But The Master and Margarita is more than just about the literary elites and the atheists. The novel is an allusion to the overall atmosphere in Russia during the Stalin regime. Through obscured passages, Bulkagov satirized the suffocating atmosphere that proliferated during this period because of the Stalin’s government’s repressive policies. Stalin’s paranoia struck fear on the denizens of his citizens. Even Bulgakov wasn’t safe from this censorship as most of his works were not approved for publication; no one is safe from the far reaching tentacles of dictatorship. The Master and Margarita also criticized the nouveaux riche and their appetite for greediness.
“Once more and for the last time, the moon flashed above and broke into pieces, and then everything went black.” ~ Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
Undertones of romance and sensuality were imbibed into the novel. Margarita’s devotion to the Master is admirable as she overcame all ordeals to be with her lover. In the complexity of the narrative it was their love story that added a tenderness to the story. Allusions to sensual impressions were present in the novel, such as Margarita’s spiritual union with the Master. However, it stressed the emptiness of gratification without love.
Mikhail Bulgakov’s writing is magnificent. His writing prowess is in full display in the way he described and depicted the different events in the narrative. He mixed humor with the outlandishly fantastical in a union that riveted me as a reader. He gave magical realism a different flavor, although at the time he wrote the novel, the said genre was still in its infancy. He worked on The Master and Margarita for more than a decade and in the end, it was all worth it.
If there is one thing that I lament is the lack of characterization. Bulgakov did well in building tension, humor and drama, however, he fell short in developing the characters. Most of the characters were interesting but it was difficult, as a reader, finding a connection with them, or at least understanding their motivations. Moreover, the Master’s passiveness is also glaring. To his credit, Bulgakov did an amazing job in writing the story that readers won’t mind this slight slip in the story.
“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. Here is the shadow of my sword. But shadows also come from trees and living beings.” ~ Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita
It took some time before I finally got to read The Master and Margarita, but all that waiting paid off because the book riveted me from start to finish. It wasn’t perfect but Bulgakov’s narrative shone, it was captivating; it captured my imagination. This satirical work is reminiscent of Dr. Jose Rizal’s works because of their depiction of the maladies of their respective periods. Moreover, these two authors have shown the extent of damage done when an empowered organization goes unchecked.
More importantly, it was The Master and Margarita’s complexity that worked me up, keeping my mind active from the start to finish, which is a good thing. It is a challenge finding a text as rich as this one – a lofty work of literature that serves as a testament to the powerful role of literature in keeping tab of history so that they won’t get lost in translation as years pass by.
That’s it for now! Happy reading!
Recommended for readers of magical realism, for CIA agents, for history buffs, readers who love period novels, readers who enjoy satirical and occultist books, and readers who are up for more challenging and complex reads.
Not recommended for Stalin and his KGB agents, for readers who dislike the involvement of Lucifer in any literary texts, and readers who prefer simple text.
About the Author
(Photo by Wikipedia) Mikhail Afanasyevich Bulkagov was born on May 15, 1891 in Kiev, Ukraine.
Bulgakov developed his interest in Russian and European literature when he joined the First Kiev Gymnasium in 1901. In 1909, he graduated from the gymnasium and entered the Medical Faculty of Kiev University. Before becoming a writer, he was a physician at the Kiev Military Hospital and later, at the front line of the First World War. He later abandoned the medical profession due to his illness.
In 1919, he wrote and published his first book, Future Perspectives, an almanac of feuilletons. He also wrote plays, such as Zoyka’s Apartment and The Turbin Brothers. However, due to censorship in Russia, most of Bulgakov’s works and plays were unpublished, prompting him to personally write a letter to Joseph Stalin, requesting to be emigrated. In the end, Bulgakov stayed in Russia and continued working at the Moscow Arts Theater.
Amongst his works of prose, only The White Guard (1926) before his death in March 10, 1940. His other works, such as The Master and Margarita (1967), Great Soviet Short Stories (1962), Heart of a Dog (1968) and A Country Doctor’s Notebook (1975), were all published posthumously.