Book review: The Master And Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master And Margarita.

Author: Mikhail Bulgakov
Publisher: Vintage Classics

The impact of Russian literature on world culture is impossible to estimate. From Fyodor Dostoevsky’s Crime And Punishment to Yevgeny Zamyatin’s We, the East Asian influence on our literary thinking is indelible. Often overlooked, however, is Mikhail Bulgakov and his magnum opus, The Master And Margarita. We’re aware that we sound grandiloquent when we say that this could be one of the greatest novels of the 20th Century, but the facts are that this statement is quite accurate. It’s certainly among the most important Soviet works, and it was a joy when Vintage’s repackaged edition landed on our desk.

Trying to condense exactly what The Master And Margarita is about into a two-sentence synopsis almost misses the point of the book’s sprawling, unconventional structure. Essentially, there are two plots. One involves the Devil coming to Moscow and wreaking havoc on the population. The other follows the story of Pontius Pilate during the trial of Jesus Christ. To fully appreciate the content of course, it has to be read, as a brief summation does it no justice. The novel is many things at once – an exploration of surrealism, a stinging critique of Soviet repressions and militantly atheistic agendas, and a fantasy tale achingly flavoured with small autobiographical details. One of the book’s most famous lines, for instance, where the Devil hands the Master back a manuscript he thought that he’d destroyed, saying: “Didn’t you know? Manuscripts don’t burn,” refers to the fact that Bulgakov had immolated an earlier draft of The Master And Margarita.

One of the book’s greatest strengths is the way in which it expands and contracts both in terms of style and approach. The short parts of the narrative involving Pilate and Yeshua (Jesus) are written almost lyrically, with beautiful evocations of setting and an attention to detail, even after translation from Russian. The parts involving Moscow, however, are intentionally designed to throw the reader off by introducing the bizarre and unbelievable straight from the beginning, conditioning the mind to accept that incredible things will happen. To understand and enjoy this, the reader has to immediately disengage the rational aspects of their brain. Reading The Master And Margarita is not unlike experiencing a dream, in many ways, with its disjointed narrative somehow tying itself together with the broken cords of deliberately fractured structure.

Of course, one of the primary factors in a novel transcending the passage of time or language barriers is that it has to work on many levels. In this, the book soars in triumph. It can be read as a comedy, as a philosophical text, as a wry take on history or as a savage and intelligent indictment of the socio-political context in which it was written. Few works of literature can claim to have this power, but as far as it goes, The Master And Margarita embodies it.

[isbn name=”The Master And Margarita”]978-0099540946[/isbn]