31 May 2011

Book Review: The Master and Magarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

This book was my first foray into Russian literature, though I have a fairly log way to go before I progress onto War and Peace. The Master and Margarita is one of those books that crops up occasionally on “top 100” lists of 20th century writings, so I thought it was worth a peek.

The style of writing requires close attention; it's not a book for the casual reader, and very often I found myself having to go back a few pages in order to pick up a reference I had glossed over but which played an important part in the plot. Bulgakov played around with the title a lot before settling on the final one we have now, and this somewhat evident, as the title characters are noticeable by the absence in the first half of the novel. The story rather focusses on an unholy trinity that have wandered into Moscow and start wreaking havoc amonst the population.

The story begins with two atheists in a park discussing the non-existence of Jesus, and dismissing Immanuel Kant's “proofs” of the existence of God. Along comes a mysterious stranger who is delighted by their atheism, but kindly points out that, after having had breakfast with Kant and having been witness to Jesus' condemnation by Pontius Pilate that Jesus is as real as the devil. Proof of this is then provided with a macabre prophecy which is fulfilled in intimate detail shortly thereafter.

The story does contain some brilliant passages, probably the most entertaining of which is the show (or séance, as it is referred to) held by Woland and his compatriots in a theatre, which reminded me somewhat of a more extravagent version of a Derren Brown live show. In fact, if this were to be made into a modern, I would recommend that Woland be played by Derren Brown, though of course I am not suggesting that the latter is Satan incarnate. The other fantastic scene is also where the novel strays from realism into a more surreal mode, is the great ball at Satan's. Returning again to the film analogy for how I would see it, the film would have to be directed by Terry Gilliam.SO I hope that gives you some idea of the kind of weirness that goes on in the book.

There were a few things that annoyed me about the book, though, and I cannot let these pass without mentioning them. Bulgakov has a habit of dropping some characters out of sight for long periods and also of introducting new characters who play an important role but about whom we have very little information. I like to form a mental picture of each character as they are intoduced, but they are shoved right into the thick of the action and so I was not easily able to do this here. The title characters are still a mystery to me, as I could not fathom their precise purpose. They are deliberately mysterious and do help, later on, to develop the progress of the storytelling, though I am still uncertain as to their precise meaning.

However, that may be due to my own ignorance of the context in which it was written. For this is more than a simple story; it is a sature of life in Stalinist Russia, and the pall of totalitarianism hangs over the novel like a dark shroud thrown over the city of Moscow by Woland. Not being very familiar with this era of history, I am sure there are many references and metaphors which I missed, but which would enhance the reading experience of those more enlightened than I.

I think I will read this again at some point in the future, but only after I have educated myself more on the historical setting. For those already familiar, I am sure this is to be seen as one of the great novels, though some parts of it are, for those like me, seemingly random or purposeless.

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