by Mikhail Bulgakov
396 pages, Penguin Classics
Review by Marc Nash
The cover for my Penguin Classics edition of The Master and Margarita has a shadow play of a cat pulling the head off a performer on stage. And this is apt, since in some ways the book is a wonderfully crafted shadowplay. The traditional folk tales, of witches and Baba Yaga and magic, artfully used to satirise the godless, cultural year zero of the Soviet State.
The cat is the form taken by Behemoth, one of 3 diabolic characters who fancy visiting and visiting havoc on Moscow, a city they claim to have never seen before. A city already labouring under a Communist regime as Bulgakov gives small insights into the already dreary life of Red Muscovites, with housing shortages, the ubiquity of primus stoves for meager cooking, the prescription on holding foreign currency and the vitiation of the arts through stultifying bureaucracy. One can’t help think that Bulgakov was sniping at the very authorities who placed such restrictions on his writing that led him to burn an early draft of this novel.
The devils gleefully spread chaos in their wake, bureaucrats and hoarders alike upended by their greeds and vanities. The set-piece is a stage show they perform, conjuring currency and fine silk clothes for the ladies, before stripping and exposing these venal constituents. It is funny and fairly breathless. Woven into it is a narrative of the last hours of Christ, as seen through the eyes of a dyspeptic Pontius Pilate. Here perhaps is the novel’s best characterisation, really fleshing out both the man and the dilemmas of his power. I actually found myself sympathetic to him through Bulgakov’s skill.
The Margarita of the title doesn’t enter the novel until halfway through. She too is a vibrant, rich character. In a loveless marriage and with a lover, the writer of the Pilate text, consigned to an asylum, she is wept up in Satan’s (here called ‘Woland’ in acknowledgement of Goethe’s “Faust” as source material) retinue. She is strong enough not to cower before the devils, to accept becoming the escort at the annual Satanic Ball (fantastically imagined by Bulgakov) and when offered a wish as a reward demonstrates exemplary selflessness.
The novel drifts on towards the end and loses some of its demonic energy in a series of downbeat, false endings, but that apart it is a fairly joyous read. I do wonder how much of the material poking fun at the Soviet system still resonate today. The notes in the back of this edition and the introduction are very helpful in placing some of the more obscure references, but as an ex-student of the defunct Soviet system, I find it hard to distance myself enough to judge for other readers on this one aspect. It may sound a touch odd, but the novel was far more localized and parochial than I had anticipated. But for me, that didn’t spoil my enjoyment of it. It’s playful and irreverent and pitches a folkish naiviety against the pseudo-scientific totalitarian state.