Le Maitre et Marguerite

The Master and Margarita is one of my mother’s favorite books. My mother, a publisher, reads about four books each week, to this is quite a significant statement on her part. She gave me the novel as a gift a few years ago, but it sat on my bookshelf, unread, for a long time. I picked it up from its dusty shelf upon returning from Liberia – I felt I needed to read an engrossing work of fiction, and, well, I wasn’t disappointed.

The narration is divided between two settings: Moscow in the 1930s, with some chapters taking place in ancient Jerusalem. The 500 and odd pages novel recounts the story of Satan’s visit to Moscow and the havoc he wreaks. In parallel, the scenes in ancient Jerusalem describe an usual perspective of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ (in this book, known as Yeshua). The reader weaves in and out of these two parallel narratives, which eventually become intertwined as we realize that the Master is the author of Yeshua’s story.

The plot of the book is rather intricate, and in spite of its length and complexity, The Master and Margarita is not particularly focused on character development. Satan (aka Woland) and his entourage appear as hilarious, dangerous and mischievous. If you need just one reason to read this book, I’d say that Behemoth, the giant, talking black cat, who belongs to Woland’s suite, would provide ample motivation. This particular character continuously confuses and frightens the people of Moscow, and is constantly engaged in completely absurd shenanigans. The title characters, on the other hand, don’t appear until more than halfway through the book, and seem secondary. They are useful as bridges between the mystical, otherworldly reality where Satan and his suite operate and the real world of early Stalinist Russia, but their story is merely a vehicle for the larger narrative, and I felt that in spite of reading this book for days and days, I did not “know” the characters.

The most important dimension of this book, which also explains its complexity and lack of in-depth characterization, is its thinly veiled attempts to mock and deride the paranoid, repressive atmosphere which defined the era. The citizens of Moscow appear as naive, mistrustful, selfish and superficial, and the authorities as rigid and reactionary. Given how scathing Bulgakov’s criticism of 1930s Russia is, it’s not surprising that the satirical book was first published nearly three decades later.

I really enjoyed The Master and Margarita (which I read in French, hence the title of this page) – it’s a snarky, humorous escape-novel which also features superb prose. It’s a tad on the long side – it could have been edited better, particularly towards the end, where the narration gets slightly confusing and tangled. Bulgakov was apparently dictating the last chapters of this book to his wife, after he fell ill, which explains the tepid ending… I like books with resolutions, or at least a solid conclusion, and I felt the last few chapters to be slightly lacking.

All in all, though, the book is a beautiful, funny read, and I recommend it for lovers of classical Russian literature who might be yearning for something a little bit different, a little bit edgy.

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