Review: The Master And Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (translated by Michael Glenny)

It’s Spring in Moscow and two members of Russian literati meet in a park in the evening. One of them, Berlioz, is the editor of a magazine. The other, pseudonym Bezdomny, is a middling poet. Berlioz has a problem with one of Bezdomny’s poems about the life of Jesus: it’s too good, too convincing that Jesus was a real man, which is treasonous in Stalin’s Soviet Union. But before their argument can go any further, a strange man shows up, insisting that he is a foreign professor, and also that indeed Jesus was very real. He also comes with a disturbing prophecy — that Berlioz will die by decapitation. When this prediction swiftly comes true, it becomes clear that the stranger is not merely a foreign intellectual.

The blurb gives it away but for much of the novel it is not so obvious who the man is. Mayhem ensues as the professor and his assistants infiltrate the local theatre committee, stage a performance that involves fakes money, affairs exposed and another man losing his head. They usurp and disappear several members of the theatrical society.

In parallel unfolds the story of Pontius Pilate, Procurator of Jerusalem on the unfortunate festival weekend when the madman Yeshua Ha-nostri comes to town, getting himself in trouble for saying things like “All power is violence”. Pilate has to make the final decision on Yeshua’s execution. We all know how that ends up, but here Pilate wavers, feeling that perhaps for the first time he has encountered someone truly interesting, an intellectual equal or superior even. Told at first by the professor and then the dreams of a man sectioned in an asylum, we later find out the tale has also been crafted into a literary epic by a man known only as the Master, encouraged by the doting mistress, Margarita. The novel was rejected for its “Pilatism” and religiosity, and the Master burned the manuscript in a fit of self-destruction. He and Margarita will also be drawn into the foreigner’s widening gyre of mayhem, and Bulgakov’s novel really takes flight in its second half as it takes a decidedly fantastical turn.

Bulgakov captures the mundane insanity of totalitarian bureaucracy, or bureaucratic totalitarianism, with the kind of sardonic wit that must only be possible thanks to living it. Thoughts are policed, propaganda is produced, and people are disappeared at the state’s convenience. Characters are presented opportunities to walk through doorways into a different version of society; most baulk. It is all too easy for the foreigner to insert himself in such a system and exploit it to his own ends. In a place where what is is what those in power say it is, it makes perfect sense that a giant cat might talk and catch a tram, or that Moscow, it turns out, is not so far removed from first century Jerusalem, with its political intrigue and secret police. The Master And Margarita is a novel about truth and freedom, and those few brave souls who pursue them in the face of extraordinary forces, but it’s also a hoot and a total romp.

Gay rating: not gay.

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