The Master and Margarita is a smart satire of Stalin’s Russia and a bold reinterpretation of Christian mythology, but what I loved most about it is its lush imaginativeness, its beautiful, dark images of an unhappy maidservant fleeing her former life on a flying pig, or Satan’s ball with its ape jazz band and crystal pool of wine, attended by histories greatest villains like Caligula, Messalina and, just for fun, polar bears.
Its plot can be summarised as: the devil pays a visit to Stalin’s Moscow. It is written in the kind of tight, Russian prose that you find in Dostoevsky, but with a playfulness that sometimes has the author breaking the fourth wall, while the novel’s structure is, to put it bluntly, weird.
The first half is essentially a series of loosely connected anecdotes of people falling foul of either Satan, under the guise of Woland, a performing black magician, or one of his colourful retinue, my personal favourite of which was the comical, murderous talking cat, Behemoth.
This section is where most of the satire takes place, through didactic tales of people being punished for their sins, usually greed, materialism or blasphemy. The punishments range from mischievous to horrific: a drunken theatre director is transported, in the blink of an eye, to Yalta; a corrupt landlord is caught with a briefcase full of contraband foreign money; a cultural affiliate is forced to break into song at regular intervals.
The chaos reaches its pinnacle in a magic show performed by Woland and his gang, in which they remove then reattach the head of a disrespectful master of ceremonies, expose infidelities and shower the crowd with money and gifts of clothes, which later, inconveniently for the recipients, disappear.
Despite the seeming lack of direction and protagonist, the book remains constantly entertaining and enchanting, thanks to the imagination and storytelling skill of the author.
It’s not until the second half that the titular Margarita appears, and the plot tightens its focus. When we meet her, the reader already knows that she had a doomed romance with the unnamed master, an author who wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate and was driven mad after being spurned by the Moscow literary establishment. In order to reunite with her lost lover, she makes a devil’s bargain to serve as the hostess for Satan’s ball, using her guile and composure to survive the ordea.
In recounting her adventures, Bulgakov reaches his greatest heights of imagination. Margarita’s presence also makes the book feel very contemporary, being quite a radical figure for her time. She is overtly sexual, spending most of the time naked, and destroys a building to take revenge on the literary establishment. Her and the master’s extramarital affair is the central romance of the novel, but instead of being punished, as you might expect from an overtly Christian text, their relationship is rewarded.
In fact, the novel turns many Judeo-Christian concepts on their heads. The book opens with a quote from Goethe’s Faust: “I am part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good”, and Bulgakov seems to embrace the idea that the devil is a servant of God, rebellious in nature but ultimately part of His plan. Woland and his band of rogues are therefore heroised by their dispensing of punishments to the deserving. In addition, they are depicted as likable for their mischievous, comical natures and off-centre nobility.
God, on the other hand, is conspicuously absent, although Jesus (called Yeshua Ha-Nozri) and the apostle Matthew Levi are major characters in the novel within the novel, the master’s lost work on Pontius Pilate, which appears intermittently throughout the text. This unnamed work is fascinating for the way it reimagines Jesus’s death, humanising mythologised figures and bringing Biblical times to life with concrete descriptions. It is interesting, and no doubt significant, that this retelling of such a seminal tale is part of the novel with the least fantastical aspects.
Even though it is more than 70 years old, The Master and Margarita still feels fresh, daring and original, a must for lovers of Russian literature and magic realism.