A Devil of a Time

The Master and Margarita    by Mikhail Bulgakov

translation by
Penguin publishers,  ....   reviewed by David P. Stern


    A deeply weird satirical fantasy. Written in Soviet Russia during the Stalin era, published in 1966 (with editorial changes, 16 years after its author's death), it tells of a visit of Moscow by Satan and five of his crew, each stranger than the rest. Leave logic and realism by the door, if you dare enter! The devil, under the name of Woland, is actually quite sympathetic. No rebel angel he, no promoter of evil or renouncer of God, he scorns Soviet propaganda that argued Jesus never existed. Jesus himself makes a cameo appearance in a story of Pontius Pilate at the time of the crucifixion, a well-crafted subplot weaving in and out of the main narrative.

    Woland has a fine sense of justice, but he and his weird associates also promote mayhem wherever they appear. Indeed, mayhem is a dominant note in this chaotic story, tying together a confusing variety of characters and locations, including a few from the gospels. I have not seen Cliff notes for this book, but they might be of help in guiding readers through Bulgakov's messy maze.

    The "Master" himself is not the devil, but the nameless author of the Pilate story, shunned and consigned to a mental institution by rivals in the Moscow literary union, the power that decided what could be published and what could not. The corrupt writer's union was obviously important to Bulgakov, and its members play significant roles. Is "master" a mask for the Bulgakov himself? Margarita is his kindly muse, never abandoning him, even in his defeat. Both enter the book rather late and inconspicuously.

    The book is also a mirror for the frustrating life of Moscow's citizens--the machinations needed to secure a Moscow apartment, the shared kitchens, the sham mental care. It's a society where work and money are rarely mentioned, because what really counts is patronage and networking. Benefiting from the hindsight of history, a reader may also note the many subjects which Bulgakov carefully sidesteps: cops are described as kind and bumbling, jail and Siberia are never mentioned, no sexuality (in spite of plentiful female nudity), no alcoholism, no citizens disappearing at night after a police visit. And does the personality of Stalin hide behind that of Pilate, wily leader with secret spies inside society?

    Ever since this book was published, it has enjoyed great popularity in the Soviet Union and in its successors. Kiev maintains an acclaimed Bulgakov museum, and tours of Moscow's Arbat quarters guide the visitors to buildings and streets where Woland might have roamed. Was Bulgakov's goal the entertainment of his readers? The skewering of corruption and pettiness in his society? Escape from reality? All three and more?

Author and Curator:   Dr. David P. Stern
     Mail to Dr.Stern:   david("at" symbol)phy6.org .
Last updated 13 May 2014