Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita centres around the character Woland and his strange entourage that visits Moscow in the 1930s. At the open of the novel, Woland meets Berlioz and Ivan Nikolaevich at Patriarch’s Ponds. Both of these men literary figures in Moscow and both are atheists. During an interesting conversation Woland tells them he has met both Kant and Pontius Pilate and he also predicts one of their deaths. Accordingly, they write off this bizarre, ‘foreign professor’ as a lunatic. However, Woland’s prediction of Berlioz’s death comes true moments later, sending Ivan Nikolaevich on a wild chase after this demon, eventually landing him in a mental institution.
It turns out Woland has indeed met Kant and Pontius Pilate – he is actually Satan. His group of mischievous bandits include a wall-eyed man with a fang, a talking cat and a witch. The story follows this band as they terrorise Moscow and punish its inhabitants’ materiality and greed for money. This involves disappearances, a brilliant, albeit catastrophic performance of black magic at the theatre and several trips to the mental institution. In between these comical hijinks, we are introduced to the story of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua, a story that is deeply linked to the title’s character, The Master. It is not until the second half of the book that The Master and Margarita’s story comes to life. The two are secretly having an affair and both are desperately in love with one another. Yet after The Master’s novel about Pontius Pilate is rejected by the literary world, he spirals into a deep depression and disappears. Margarita becomes a witch and Satan’s right-hand lady in order to save her lover and their relationship.
This book has different interpretations, however, most critics agree that this is one of the finest pieces of twentieth century Russian literature. Wikipedia informs me that it can be read as a response to Soviet Russia’s oppressive Stalinist regime or a tale about the inseparability of good and evil. Both interpretations have their merits, either way the novel is a complicated, fantasy tale that is an absolute joy to read. My friend recommended I read it a while ago and for a long time it received no attention other than a generous lapping of dust. With some four hundred pages it was the length of it that put me off for a long time, but I decided to bite the bullet and I have not regretted it. I was enticed by Margarita’s adventure to Satan’s ball and found myself utterly engrossed in the fantasy world that Buglakov created. Moreover, my reactions were effortlessly taken in different directions throughout the book. At one moment I found myself laughing out loud at women running naked in the street and the next I felt deep sorrow for The Master and his woes.
The Master and Margarita is a well-crafted novel that makes you laugh, fantasize and question the nature of evil. I would recommend it to anyone who wants a challenging read and enjoys a healthy dose of fantasy. Let me know if you have read the book or have any recommendations for me.