The Master and Margarita: A challenging but magical read
A review by Alan Vaughn
This masterpiece of magical realism by the Russian great Bulgakov can be a challenging read but it is well worth the effort. Bulgakov explores the reality of life in Soviet Russia with fine precision and unerringly accurate detail. His account of Moscow as it was in the 30s was so realistic it earned him the disapproval of the Soviet authorities who heavily censured his work during his lifetime. He wasn’t allowed to publish his works within the Soviet Union and in fact, it was almost 40 years after his death that a definitive, and uncensored, version of this novel was finally published.
In a nutshell, the Devil comes to Moscow and wreaks havoc along with a strange assortment of his followers. Most notably a talking black cat the size of a large hog and a naked witch or two. Taking place over the course of a few tumultuous days, The Master and Margarita follows several characters whose travails with the Devil and these followers alter their lives in unexpected and strange ways leading to death, insanity, and imprisonment. With religion basically outlawed under the communist system most of them refuse to believe in the reality of the Devil, which causes him to take a perverse pleasure in not only acquainting them with his true presence but showering them with curses and dark gifts like so many broken blessings.
As we follow an assortment of editors, poets, theatre directors, critics, and a variety of people tangentially connected to them we learn something from their interactions with the Devil. He quickly punctures their hopes and schemes and firmly destroys any semblance of normality in their lives. The greedy are given money that turns into foreign currency condemning them to imprisonment. A group of vain women are given the most fashionable of clothes only to have them vanish, often while on the bodies of said women, leaving them exposed and vulnerable. Wherever he goes he strikes terror and hopelessness in the hearts of both the innocent and the guilty.
The titular couple are the only exception to these horrific events. Already driven to the edge of despair, the Master is a failed author who has voluntarily committed himself to an asylum. Mostly because his masterpiece, a work about Pontius Pilate and the Crucifixion that appears as a novel within a novel, has been rejected by a leading editor. Then, when he seeks to self-publish through the papers, his character is summarily destroyed by leading critics who cannot accept any type of semi-religious text. The only person who believes in him is his lover, Margarita, and her passion for him and his work eclipses thought and reason. Her belief in him protects and empowers her to make Faustian bargain with Devil to reunite her with the Master no matter the cost.
When the Devil finally takes his leave of the city some semblance of normality returns to the lives of all the people he has provoked and harassed though many find themselves undoubtedly altered by the experience they have gone through. These ripples caused by his actions have a widespread effect and are felt far into the future, demonstrating his power to a people who had chosen to close their eyes to the truth and comfort themselves with lies.
I would recommend this novel for fans of magical realism, such as One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Midnight’s Children by Salman Rushdie. Bulgakov was a master of satire as well and fans of A Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole will enjoy the humor.
The Master and Margarita is available in both ebook and audiobook format from Hoopla with a library card. Bulgakov’s only other novel, Heart of a Dog, another classic work satirizing Soviet society is also available from Hoopla and is a fantastic read as well.