Cannonball Read IV: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
This notion of Pilate as merely human instead of one of history's most well-known bad guys exemplifies Bulgakov's theme of good and evil, but the more fascinating example is Woland himself. Throughout the novel, there is no real instance of him being responsible for any evil-doing; rather, it is his henchman who cause all the trouble. There is a point at which Woland refers to himself as a "department," suggesting that (much like Pilate) he, and by extension his opposition, are merely doing a job that may or may not reflect on any personal ideal. His treatment of Margarita and her Master, in fact, suggests that he is more a sympathetic soul than anything else. I think that one could persuasively argue that Woland, far from being the villain of the story, is in fact its hero. He and his compatriots come to Moscow to punish the guilty and enact justice for those who have been treated unfairly. That their means are, well, devilish may give the lie to their ends, but that doesn't necessarily appear to be what Bulgakov wants us to believe. His obvious contempt for the bureaucratic society he is satirizing comes through at every turn. That the novel was heavily censored in Russia upon its original release may serve to prove his point.
Russian novelists, regardless of what century they were writing in, seem to be a wordy bunch. Bulgakov is no exception here, but unlike some of his predecessors, I think the events of The Master and Margarita keep the novel moving along at a good pace. There's something for everyone here: politics, poetry, romance, humor, drama, sex, violence... If one can avoiding losing patience with the early chapters, which seem rather disjointed and haphazard, this is a truly imaginative and fantastical novel; a little confusing, but ultimately worthwhile.
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