thoughts on books: the master and margarita

Great book! I’m not sure how I first heard about this book, but I seem to be drawn to the Faustian story of selling one’s soul to the devil – not sure what that implies about me. I also enjoy Russian literature – there is something very rich in best of Russian novels. When I read Mikhael Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita in 2014, it was the second story about Stalinist Russia I had read within a couple of months (Animal Farm was the first), so I was primed. While The Master and Margarita is a novel, it is based on the experiences of the author and represents a commentary on the oppression experienced by creative people in 1930s Moscow.

In this story, the devil comes to Moscow with a few minions and wreaks havoc in the lives of many people. Trying to explain the plot or the (seemingly millions of) characters would be insane. There are a few parallel story lines in this book – two time periods that both feature Pontius Pilate, two writers who meet in an insane asylum, and two lifestyles that are characterized by extremes of suppression and hedonism. In a city and country that denies God and Satan, the devil has a grand time rooting out the hypocrisy in people who are really vile. Of course, the devil also causes some good people to suffer, though fortunately much is righted in the end (but not everything!).

The Master refers to an author who writes a book about Pontius Pilate and Christ that is unacceptable in 1930s Russia. Margarita, who has a seemingly perfect husband, nonetheless falls in love with the older, pure-hearted Master and is willing to risk even her soul to protect him. Fortunately, she is just the person Satan is looking for to help him host his gala ball – he needs a queen and Margarita fits the bill. So, he saves the Master and ensures that the lovers will have each other forever. Don’t think Satan is going soft, he just uses people to fulfill his needs at the time – the Master allows him to sort of make a deal with Christ to let Pilate off the hook of his long-standing tortured “existence”. It’s irreverently and somewhat inappropriately funny – a few people literally lose their heads, others are punished for just being awful, silly or vain people. The minions – one a giant back cat, another an ugly guy in checkered pants and another a guy with a fang – weave in and out of the stories and instigate a lot of the craziness. They are sometimes a little tiresome or irritating, but I couldn’t help but be entertained by their antics.

Despite the sometimes zany characters and events described in the book, the underlying themes are of the most serious nature. The suppression of creativity and intelligence was a sad but true component of Stalin’s regime. The violence of the time is reflected by the devil and his minions as they essentially torture, abuse or misuse people. The oppression and disappearances of people – neighbors, co-workers, friends and families did not know what happened to people – were depicted in several ways through the story. Bulgakov experienced many of these things when living in Russia at the time and this book was a response to the policies in place.

The story examines what Bulgakov described as the collective cowardice of people and institutions for not standing up against both the mistreatment of their family or neighbors and the corruption of local authorities or the bureaucracy. This cowardice contributes to an overall sense of vagueness between good and evil. If The Lord of the RIngs had a very clear distinction between good and evil, this book obliterates the line separating these concepts. The “evil” characters sometimes end up doing something good and the “good” characters often have a bit of bad thrown in, as greed, pride, and other sins are on display.

I went back and forth between 4.5 and 5 – I’m ending up at 5/5 because I was so entertained but never lost sight of the fact that this was about a frightening and violent time. The author did not get caught up in the antics of his characters, which would have been easy to do! He didn’t waver from the main themes of the novel, particularly the impact of oppression on the lives of all people. His focus on the creative souls who sought to convey some form of truth and the expression of greed that caused people to do unsavory things were never far away. This book is bold and crazy, but I loved it.

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