Stories of anarchy and transformation: The Master and Margarita

THERE are authors known chiefly for the works written in one brief golden chapter of their careers; there are those whose reputation rests on a handful of books or interlinking stories that rise above the grey foothills of their remaining work; and then there is Soviet playwright Mikhail Bulgakov, whose multiplicit talents and eventful life are overshadowed, indeed rendered near invisible, by the fame of a single, matchless, uncompleted novel, published in full in his own country only decades after his death.

Nicholas Rothwell, The Asutralian Review 14 September 2013.

This is a quote from Nicholas Rothwell’s excellent article in the The Australian Review, which happened to coincide with my re-reading of the book Rothwell refers to, The Master and Margarita. I discovered it many years ago, and shared it with my daughters, who loved it too. We were amazed, delighted and changed by it, and I have never forgotten it. So when I found a second-hand copy last year, having long since lost my original copy, I grabbed it.

This book was not published until 1967, 27 years after Bulgakov died, at the premature age of 49. He was destroyed by the struggle to have his writing acknowledged, published, performed (he wrote plays as well) in the hellish regime of Stalin’s Russia.

Nothing progresses. Everything is gobbled up by the hellish maw of Soviet red tape. Every step taken, every move made by Soviet citizens is a torment, taking up hours, days, sometimes even months.

But to the masterpiece, flawed as it is. The Master and Margarita. It defies my will to summarise it, or even to review it; for this would merit a postgraduate thesis. Suffice to say, it is an inimitable blend of satire, farce, romance, dark comedy, magic realism and tragedy. The plot is extraordinarily convoluted, and involves at least three strands: the events surrounding a visit to Moscow by Satan and his attendants; the love story of the Master and Margarita; and the retelling/revision of the story of the crucifixion of Christ, in which Pontius Pilate is the central character, the tragic anti-hero, and Christ is a bit-player, a rather ineffectual but pure and gentle simpleton, with Mathew the Levite as his sole disciple, and Pontius Pilate’s secret police in the background. The three stories are interwoven, but separated to some extent by the narrative arrangement, with the first book focusing on the mayhem caused to Moscow’s bureaucracy and literary institution by Satan and his crew, and the second book focusing on the love story of the Master and Margarita. The ending brings Satan et al. and M and M together with Christ and Pontius Pilate, in a transcendent, romantic-tragic, redemptive finale. There is an epilogue which ties up the loose threads of the lower-life characters of Moscow. This satiric  thread, both in Book 1, and in the epilogue, left me a bit cold. I’m sure, if I were more knowledgeable about Russia in the Stalinist era and the literary scene of that time, it would mean far more to me, as it did to Bulgakov.

But I absolutely love the Satan-Pilate-Christ thread, woven through the lives of the lovers (the Master has written the story of Pilate and Christ as it is told in the novel, and is broken by its rejection by the literary world).  I find it very meaningful; the concept that evil and good are very closely aligned, that black and white magic are two sides of a coin, like love and hate, destruction and salvation, loss and redemption, revenge and forgiveness.

I can’t say much more about this complex book, which is like a hologram, muti-faceted and intricated in such a way that if you try to tease out the threads, it doesn’t work. But I will say that I think it could only have been created in hell, the hell of Stalin’s Russia, as a vision of redemption in a very unorthodox fashion.

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