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Cannonball Read IV: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

By Samantha | Book Reviews | August 16, 2012 | Comments ()


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What would happen if Satan came to town? Well, in Moscow, at least, various members of society find themselves either dead or in an insane asylum; a sold out seance at the Variety Theatre exposes the greed and hypocrisy of the upper classes; an entire office finds that they are compelled to break into song every five minutes or so; and there are some exceedingly strange goings-on in a certain apartment building recently occupied by Mikhail Berlioz, whose death signals the opening strains of the madcap symphony wrought by "Professor Woland" and his merry band, and that's just for a start. Meanwhile, Ivan Homeless, a poet who is among those committed, meets his neighbor at the asylum, an unnamed "Master" whose life disintegrates after Moscow's literary critics lambast his opus magnum, a novel about Pontius Pilate. The Master mourns the loss of his beloved mistress, who he believes has forgotten him. She, however, when approached by one of Woland's henchmen and offered a chance to make her dreams come true, finds herself the hostess at Satan's ball. If she manages to get through a never-ending night of hobnobbing with a glittering company of evildoers, Margarita will have the opportunity to reunite with her lover. Would you make a deal with the devil for eternal happiness?

Mikhail Bulgakov's novel, The Master and Margarita, published posthumously in 1966, is a completely fascinating and mind-boggling read. I will admit that I spent the entire first half of the novel asking my husband, who'd read it before, when it would start to make any sense. After a while, though, the beautiful language (apologies for not remembering which translation I read), the entertaining characters, and the wildly imaginative story won me over. In the end, while The Master and Margarita is still slightly confusing, it proves itself to be a incredibly constructed study in the dichotomy of human nature, and a biting critique of Soviet society. The story-within-a-story, about the judgement and execution of Jesus Christ from the perspective of Pontius Pilate, is equally fascinating. Bulgakov paints "Yeshua" as merely a kind of free-thinking hippie who manages to run aground of important people, and Pilate himself as a political pawn. He'd rather have hired Yeshua on as a kind of philosophical advisor, but circumstances beyond his control force him to condemn the man to death.

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.

This review is part of the volunteer Cannonball Read IV. Read all about it and find more of Samantha's reviews on the group blog.

(Note: Any revenue generated from purchases made through the amazon.com affiliate links in this review will be donated in entirety to the American Cancer Society.)



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Comments Are Welcome, Bigots and Trolls Are Not


  • RhymesWithSilver

    I read a bit of this in Russian as an undergrad, and it was even more amazing. Too bad my language skills weren't up to reading the whole thing- the more you understand about Russian language, culture and especially history, the better the book gets.

    Example: In the beginning, the only drink left on the beverage cart at Patriarch's Ponds is apricot juice (but it's warm). The absurdity of this totally escaped me until I learned more about the Stalin era- it's absurd and incisive on multiple levels, and the book is FULL of this sort of detail. You can read this book very, very deeply in you want to.

    Also, unknown artists posted this brilliant bit of street art in Patriarch's Ponds this week: http://a2.sphotos.ak.fbcdn.net...

  • winged chorus

    this is one of my very favourite books. to me the beginning feels like a strange kaleidoscope is shifting in front of you, and you're getting little random snippets, and then later something shifts and everything starts to make more sense, and the beginning parts gain a kind of depth that you see in retrospect....not explaining it very well, but suffice to say that i love this book.

  • Sara_Tonin00

    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...

    I am always surprised when that is the takeaway from Pilate. Because to me, the takeaway of the story - even if you just take it as a story - is that someone went against his conscience, "allowed" evil to happen, and didn't just kill an innocent man, but killed a truly good and important man.

    (from a religious point of view though, it had to happen blah blah blah)

    BUT - thanks. I've never even heard of this book, and it sounds intriguing - I know someone who might be getting it as a gift soon....

  • Absolutely one of may all-time favorites! Great Fun and great topic to review! thank you!

    edit- wait, am I the only one who didn't find the book insane? I'm not crazy- I'm not.

  • One of my all-time absolute favourites. For so many reasons.
    The imagery alone makes it worth the entry fee.
    'In a white cloak with blood-red lining...' Shivers up my spine every time.

  • Anne At Large

    I remember this book being so complicated and insane at the beginning and so worth the ride once I plowed through the first couple of chapters.
    Great review!

  • TheOriginalMRod

    This is one of my favorite books.

  • almond

    I felt like I was constantly thrown this way and that when I read it, but oddly enough I also felt happy to go along on the crazy ride. I read the novel a couple of years ago and I no longer remember everything in detail, but I still have a sense of the spirituality and satire present in the story. Though it may seem that those are two elements which cannot go together very well, Bulgakov managed to combine them in a very artful manner. I enjoyed the book immensely and when I finished it I felt like I needed a few days to sort everything out. My mind was full of everything.

  • Bully-G

    The Master and Magarita is a shockingly complex novel, which is as much about Soviet society as it is a simple piss-take on the Moscow writers' circuit, and as much a religious text as it is philosophical. Bulgakov is incredibly talented at weaving together themes (and plots- the way both modern and ancient threads to the novel converge at the end is astounding), and tackling both the minor issues of commentary with grander, more epic concerns. The more you learn about his life, and about the society in which he wrote, the more you discover layered in the book. It could take a whole career to decipher.

    The most interesting observation I've ever heard discussed was that, for a text featuring Jesus and the Devil, there is no actual God in the story. Jesus(or Yeshua, since he uses his realistic name rather than the accepted biblical spellings, like Yerushalayim instead of Jerusalem) is just an ordinary man, the chapters in Yerushalayim are full of realism while the modern day science and politics-led world is full of magic and miracles. Most interestingly of all, Woland, the devil figure, punishes nobody who is undeserving. He punishes the theives, liars, cheats and fools of pretentious Moscow, performing a duty more easily attributed to a vengeful god than the devil. He's actually not all that bad a guy.

    Anyway, enough of the lecture. My favourite thing about this book is that it can be insightful, philosophical, touching, frenetic and entertaining all at once, and above all else, it's incredibly funny

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