Where does one start?
The Master and Margarita – written by Russian novelist, playwright and doctor, Mikhail Bulgakov, is considered to be one of the literary masterpieces of the 20th century. Bulgakov worked on this novel from 1928 through to 1940, the year he passed away following an inherited kidney disorder. A satirical portrayal of Russia during the Stalin regime, it was only in 1966 that The Master and Margarita first saw the light of day, albeit censored and published in serial form in Moscow magazine.
A story within a story – one set in 1930s Moscow, the other in Jerusalem starting with Pontius Pilate’s trial of Yeshua Ha-Notsri – The Master and Margarita is a surreal, fantastical novel from the get-go, switching back and forth from one era to the other.
The first chapter, aptly titled “Never Talk to Stranger”, opens with an unusual encounter at Patriarch’s Pond where the devil / Satan makes an entry under the guise of a certain Professor Woland. Once I started reading the book, I didn’t want to stop. It was as though I was bewitched by the novel!
Professor Woland and his unholy crew, including Behemoth, an impressive chatty black cat who’s a bit of a show-off, wreck havoc wherever they go, including a scandalous performance in Variety theatre where nothing is what it seems and mysterious disappearances occur – the latter, a reference to Stalinist Russia.
Reading The Master and Margarita is like being on a roller-coaster where the twists and turns get increasingly steep and convoluted. You can scream all you want, but no one – except the devil – is going to hear you, and no one gets off unless he or she just “disappears”.
Woven within the two-part novel is a love story of the unnamed Master and his devoted “secret wife”, Margarita who willingly goes to hell to have him returned to her. Margarita hosts Satan’s grand ball, where she welcomes an assortment of characters, including some historical characters from Signora Tofana to Emperor Rudolf, and fictional ones including a woman called Frieda who is tormented for suffocating her new-born with a handkerchief. The ball “coincides with the night of Good Friday since the Master’s novel also deals with this same spring full moon when Christ’s fate is sealed by Pontius Pilate and he is crucified in Jerusalem. All three events in the novel are linked by this.” (source: Wikipedia)
The commentary in this edition published by Vintage is very helpful, especially in shedding the light on some of the biblical references (I obviously didn’t pay attention during Sunday school and mass) and historical associations about living in Russia in the 1930s. A fan of Goethe’s Faust, Bulgakov made numerous references to the play in his work. The Master and Margarita is also autobiographical in some parts, including Bulgakov’s burning of his manuscripts which is mirrored by the Master’s attempt to destroy his story on Pontius Pilate.
The Master and Margarita is an intriguing fable, absolutely fascinating yet chilling in some parts. A re-reading of the novel beckons.