The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is a novel that is working on various different levels but regardless of that it is a book you will never forget and lingers on as you unravel the story in your mind trying to work out what it all means.
Bearing in mind the book was written against a background of Stalin’s Russia, where people would disappear in the middle of the night, friends would denounce each other and the Gulag system was at its height this conveys the sense of reality being distorted. Things that shouldn’t happen are happening in real life so the idea that people would wear clothes that then leave the naked after they vanish is no more stupid than the thought that people would change their ideas just to survive the purges.
The book starts with two atheists sitting in a park in Moscow talking about how Jesus didn’t exist when the Devil, a character under different names but mainly described as Woland, walks up and says he knows Jesus lived because he was there. There then unfolds the story of Pontius Pilate putting to death a man he knows is innocent told through a book that is being written by the character called the Master; a story of the Devil (Woland) running rampant through 1930s Moscow performing all sorts of acts in the guise of a magician with his henchmen; plus the love story of the Master and Margarita who leaves her life of bored luxury to follow the writer to the end.
Is it well written?
Some of the scenes will never be forgotten but and it is a challenge to get through what is clearly not a normal story. But it transmits the feeling of fear, oppression and topsy turvy decisions that must have been the norm in Stalin’s time. The Christ story is told in a way that is more narratively engaging than the traditional biblical story and the actions of Woland leave you sometimes bemused and at other points horrified. But as a satire on Modern Russia the only comparison that I have read, I’m sure there are plenty of others, is Animal Farm by George Orwell.
Should it be read?
The book is so well known that it would be odd if it was not consumed at some point by a reader and it deserves to be because rather than hide in the past and produce pastoral stories that implied the peasants needed a revolution, like some modern Russian authors, this is set clearly in modern Moscow. The other benefit of reading this is that it gives you a chilling insight into the power of the regime, as portrayed by Woland to literally erase or move people from their lives.
More Bulgakov, although as already posted The White Guard is very different in style, Animal Farm by Orwell or some of the non-fiction titles about life in Stalin’s Russia, In the Court of the Red Tsar is particularly good example by Simon Sebag-Montefiore.
Version read – Penguin modern classics paperback