Wednesday, November 21, 2007

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita is one of the most unusual books ever written. Because of the fantastic nature of the story it has been labeled magical realism. But the story is so original and bizarre it really defies any such catagorization.

This book is frequently recommended by one friend to another by word of mouth. I was told about it by a friend who had been told about it by a friend and I in turn have told several friends. This story is so unique and liberating that it inspires enthusiasm to tell others. It is so compelling that everyone who starts it is hooked and cannot put it down until the end. Often people even reread the book immediately.

The title of the first chapter of the book gives us the moral of the story, Never talk to strangers. Bulgakov lived and wrote in Moscow during Stalin's reign and this warning very aptly describes the atmosphere of suspicion in the U.S.S.R. in those days.

The story begins with two men sitting on a park bench on a hot summer day in a park called Patriarchs Pond (a real place close to where Bulgakov lived in the 1920's). The park, usually crowded at this time of day, is strangely deserted. The men on the bench are Mikhail Berloiz, editor of an important literary journal and chairman of the board of one of the largest literary associations in Moscow called MASSOLIT, and a young poet named Ivan Nikolayevich who writes under the pen name of Homeless.

Berloiz feels frightened for no apparent reason and his heart skips a beat, then suddenly an apparition of an incredibly lean man over seven feet tall wearing a jockey cap on a tiny head and a checked jacket much too short for him appears before him as if woven of air. The apparition vanishes and Berloiz assumes it was an hallucination due to heat stroke.

The two men begin a conversation. Berloiz has commissioned Homeless to write a long antireligious poem about Jesus Christ. Berloiz wants Homeless to rewrite the poem because he says it makes it sound as if Jesus existed. Berloiz insists Jesus never existed and provides impressive historical and intellectual proofs to that effect.

A mysterious stranger appears, sits on the next bench, and enters the conversation uninvited. The stranger is tall, clean shaven, and appears to be in his forties. He wears a grey suit, grey shoes, and a gray beret worn at a jaunty angle over his ear. He has platinum crowns on one side of his mouth and gold crowns on the other side. His right eye is black and his left eye is green. One eyebrow is higher than the other, he has a twisted grin, and he carries a cane with a black handle in the form of a poodles head.

The stranger begins to debate with the two men insisting that Jesus Christ had existed. Even talking as if he had known Jesus personally. He offers them a cigarette asking what brand they would like. When he opens his cigarette case it contains their brand as if by magic. The two men are suspicious, taking the stranger for an informant. They demand to see his papers.

The stranger offers to show them his papers and tells them he is a polyglot and specialist in black magic. He says he has come to Moscow to decipher the manuscripts of the tenth century necromancer Herbert D' Aurillac for the state library.

The stranger predicts that Berloiz's head will soon be cut off by "a russian woman, a member of the young communist league." He says that Berloiz will not be able to keep his appointment for a meeting at MASSOLIT that evening because " Annuska has already bought the sunflower oil, and not only bought it but spilled it too. So that the meeting will not take place."

As chapter one ends the stranger says in regard to the issue of Jesus," There is no need for points of view...he simply existed, that is all." Then he says in a low voice: "Everything is very simple: In the early morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, wearing a white cloak with a blood red lining and walking with the shuffling gate of a cavalryman..."

Chapter 2 begins a second narrative relating a first hand account of the trial and crucifixion of Yeshua (Jesus) from Pilates perspective. It begins:

"In the early morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, wearing a white cloak with a blood red lining and walking with the shuffling gate a calvaryman, the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, came out into the covered colannade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great."

Later we learn that the mysterious stranger is traveling under the name Professor Woland and that he is none other than his majesty Satan himself. He is accompanied by two henchmen. One is the tall lean man in the checked jacket. He says his name is "..let's say Koroviev." The other is a tomcat as big as a man named Behemoth who is a crack shot with a beretta pistol.

The trio proceed to cause all kinds of mayhem in Moscow. Professor Woland performs a magic show where among other "tricks" a man is decapitated. Woland and his minions move into an "evil apartment" (a real apartment where Bulgakov lived) where all kind of strange phenomenom take place and people keep disappearing without a trace.

Later we are introduced to the Master (based on Bulgakov himself), who is writing the story of Pontius Pilate. The Master meets a beautiful, intelligent, and good woman named Margarita (based on Bulgakov's third wife). Margarita and the Master fall in love. When the Master tries to burn the manuscript he has been working on, Margarita rescues it from the fireplace and glances at the first page. It begins with the already familiar words: "In the early morning of the spring month of Nisan, wearing a white cloak with a blood red lining and walking with the shuffling gate of a calvaryman..."

The Master and Margarita are separated. Margarita desperately tries to find the Master. She runs into another of Professor Wolands bizarre sidekicks called Azazello who gives her a jar of his special cream. Margarita goes home, strips naked, and rubs it all over her body. The cream enables her to fly and renders her invisible. Margarita flys out the window and gleefully flys around Moscow playing practical jokes on people who are behaving badly and deserve a kick in the behind. This chapter is great fun and is very liberating. Everyone who reads this book says they want a jar of Azazello's cream.

Margarita then flys towards the river per Azazello's instructions. There a flying car awaits to chaffeur her to Satans Ball where all the great composers of history perform for all the great villians of history.

This is very fun story to read. Bulgakov's characters turn the Moscow bureaucracy upside down and dispatch petty officials unceremoniously, avenging every bad experience you've ever had at a government office or perhaps calling your telephone company. The story is absurd and over the top, Yet it is an amazingly accurate depiction of life in the soviet regime or in any modern bureaucracy. This brilliant illustration of the absurdity of modern societies and the systems that govern them speaks of Bulgakov's genius and the importance of this novel as a masterpiece of world literature.

Several translations are available. The translation by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O' Conner is the most accurate and complete. Earlier translations were based on the censored 1967 soviet edition. The Burgin/O'Conner translation has the complete text and the benefit of thirty years of Bulgakov scholarship. That said, my favorite is still the wonderfully lyrical Mirra Ginsberg translation.

Middlebury college has created a wonderful website with all kinds of background information on the characters and locales in the novel. I recommend using this site as a reference when reading the book. However it is not necessary as everyone relates to this story without any background information.

This book has a cult following and the "evil apartment" in Moscow where Bulgakov lived has become a shrine for fans and even satanists in Moscow.

Read this book. You'll be glad you did, and remember to "never talk to strangers".

The illustration of Berloiz, Homeless, and Professor Woland on the park bench above is by Charlie Stone. See more of his wonderful illustrations at the Middlebury website.

Visit The Master and Margarita website at Middlebury College:

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