The Devil went down to Moscow…he was looking for a soul to steal. He was in a bind ’cause he was way behind and he was looking to make a deal. Okay, maybe not, but I decided to check out The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov for my first actual review here on Eleven and a Half Years of Books (in case you didn’t pick up on that from the title of the post).
(Note, for those following along in The Top Ten: Writers Pick Their Favorite Books, this one was 2nd for Kathryn Harrison, 5th for David Mitchell, and 5th for Annie Proulx.)
This one is an interestingly layered story. Seemingly at the core is a story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Supposedly, the story is written by a man who calls himself the Master (see the title) and is intensely loved by a woman named Margarita (also see the title). However, his literary efforts were lambasted by the literary establishment and he was even hounded by the Moscow police. All that is in the past though, as the Devil descends upon an unprepared Moscow that has rejected religion.
Of course, Bulgakov’s Jesus isn’t exactly the Jesus you might be thinking of. Consider this portion from the interrogation of Yeshua Ha-Notsri by Pontius Pilate:
“Well, all right. If you wish to keep it secret, you may do so. It has no direct beating on the case. So you maintain that you did not incite them to tear down…or burn, or in any other manner destroy the temple?”
“I repeat, Hegemon, I did not incite them to any such actions. Do I look like an imbecile?”
“Oh, no, you do not look like an imbecile,” replied the procurator softly, breaking out in a fearsome smile. “So swear that you did nothing of the kind.”
“What would you have me swear by?” asked the unbound prisoner excitedly.
“Well, by your life,” answered the procurator. “It is most timely that you swear by your life since it is hanging by a thread, understand that.”
Though this reminds me a little of Jesus’s trial before Pilot, it is certainly not how I remember the story.
Also, Bulgakov’s Devil, named Woland, is nothing like any Devil I’ve ever seen before. His antics in Moscow may have a serious edge for a few unlucky people, but he seems more interested in making the arrogant and money-grubbing residents of Moscow look foolish than in endangering their souls or taking their lives:
“Do I note a touch of surprise, my dearest Stepan Bogdanovich?” Woland inquired of Styopa whose teeth were chattering, “But there is nothing to be surprised about. This is my retinue.”
At this point the cat drank down the vodka, and Styopa’s hand began to slip down the door frame.
“Any my retinue needs space,” Woland continued, “which means that one of us in this apartment is superfluous. And I think that someone is—you!”
And then the bedroom began to spin around Styopa, he hit his head on the door frame, and as he was losing consciousness, he thought, “I’m dying…”
But he did not die. He opened his eyes slightly and saw that he was sitting on something made of stone. A sound could be heard nearby. When he opened his eyes properly, he realized that it was the sound of the sea and that a wave was, in fact, breaking at his very feet, that, to be brief, he was sitting at the end of a jetty, and that a blue sky was sparkling above him, and behind him was a white city nestled in the hills.
Then Styopa resorted to the following maneuver: he dropped on his knees in front of the unknown smoker and said, “Please tell me, what city is this?”
“Are you kidding?!” said the heartless smoker.
“I’m not drunk,” Styopa replied hoarsely, “Something’s happened to me…I’m sick…Where am I’ What city is this?”
Styopa sighed softly, fell over on his side and struck his head against the warm stone of the jetty.
Regardless of Jesus or the Devil, or the Master or Margarita (who don’t really seem to be in a lot of danger for being in a novel with the Devil), Bulgakov has to be the strangest Russian writer of his time. I mean, he was only a generation after Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, and Turgenev. This book is set in Moscow in the thirties, if you can believe it from the small chunks I’ve shared. Yet, if I didn’t know better, I’d really think he was writing just a few years ago. There is just something remarkably similar to contemporary prose in the way that Bulgakov wrote. It really makes the book interesting, considering its actual age.
And, all in all, the whole novel is a great deal of fun. Bulgakov may have been an anomaly in his own time, but today I found him delightful. The book is definitely weird, don’t get me wrong on that, but it was a good kind of weird. The Master and Margarita is a strange thing, living and breathing in its own little world.
– David S. Atkinson