Sunday, April 27, 2008

Mikhail A. Bulgakov - Master and Margarita (Book Review)

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I wouldn’t normally consider Master and Margarita as a genre book, although it could be argued that it contains at least a few elements of both fantasy and alternative history subgenre. This is a modern classic, written somewhere in between 1928 and 1940 by a Russian novelist and playwright Mikhail A. Bulgakov. Master and Margarita is considered his magnum opus as well as his swan song and it elevated his name into the hall-of-fame of the world’s greatest novelists. The novel is officially categorized as one of the greatest novels of the 20th century and one of the most prominent Soviet satires – a realistic novel permeated with elements of the fantastic. It (successfully) couples the themes of political satire, love story, social bigotry and the eternal struggle of good vs. evil – but if my life depended on it, I couldn't decide which of the characters is good and which is evil in this mash-up of strange and wondrous ideas that litter the novel.
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---"In a white cloak with blood-red lining, with the shuffling gait of a cavalryman, early in the morning of the fourteenth day of the spring month of Nisan, there came out to the covered colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great' the procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate.
---More than anything in the world the procurator hated the smell of rose oil, and now everything foreboded a bad day, because this smell had been pursuing the procurator since dawn."
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At the very start we are introduced to the Devil, who decides to visit communist Moscow with his entourage of misfits, as he gets entangled into a debate about the existence of God and Devil with two self-aware and determined atheists, both very well known among the literary circles. You can imagine the surprise on the Devils face, when the two fellows try to convince him that he does not exist. Soviet Union lies under the Stalin's iron boot and the people suffer the state's rigid pressure, but they manage to quibble over material goods and prestige anyway - the pretense of equality between all people is clearly shown as false (how can pretense be anything else than false anyway?). It’s an optimistic picture in a way – people are shown as resilient and versatile, but sadly for the wrong reasons (their own greed and selfishness). So we have a lurid depiction of a failed ideology and the people’s ability to adapt to and subvert any pressure coming from the above authority to their own needs.
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There are two storylines – the first one follows the Devil as he discloses social bigotry among the residents of Moscow, and the second one returns all the way back to the bliblical story of Pontius Pilate, the procurator of Judea, and how he deals with the prophet Yeshua (alias Ha-Nozri) and his conviction. The storyline dealing with the procurator of Judea is interpreted quite liberally that differs from the religious canon quite profoundly.
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---"The visitor was no longer alone in the bedroom, but had company: in the second armchair sat the same type he had imagined in the front hall. Now he was clearly visible: the feathery moustache, one lens of the pince-nez gleaming, the other not there. But worse things were to be found in the bedroom: on the jeweller's wife's ottoman, in a casual pose, sprawled a third party -- namely, a black cat of uncanny size, with a glass of vodka in one paw and a fork, on which he had managed to spear a pickled mushroom, in the other."
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Since Master and Margarita is a complex novel of considerable depth and full of hidden meanings, references and subliminal allegories - but nevertheless beautifully crafted into a biting satire, which makes it so approachable - it deserved to be researched on my behalf…suffice to say, that most of the character’s names (as well as most of the other things in the novel) refer to someone or something: 1) “Behemoth” can stand for something enormous in size and power as well as for hippopotamus; 2) “Margarita” due to a reference in the book might stand for “Marguerite de Valois”; 3) “Woland” is a german name for Satan - an obvious homage to Goethe’s Faust; 4) “Faggoto“ stands for a woodwind instrument; 5) “Azazello“ or “Azazel“ is a fallen angel who taught people how to make weapons and jewelry; 6) “Abaddona“ refers to "Abaddon", a place of destruction or the chief demon Destroyer etc.
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Bulgakov mocks the rigid religious canon and the institution of Church, but otherwise looks with favor upon religion as such. The situation in communist Russia is portrayed with clarity that only an insider can possess – exposing trafficking with foreign currencies, bribery of officials, housing speculations, cheap entertainment (Variety), irregular food supply (what kind of food is “of the second freshness“?...that would be rotten food, right?), the proverbial shallowness of the bourgeois and so forth. And what is the Devil’s part in all this? It’s quite simple really – to flush out the part of us that is immoral, shallow and opportunistic: and to make humanity aware of its own flaws. But what surprised me the most concerning the Devil can be discerned from the following passage in the book:
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---" 'YOU and I speak different languages, as usual,' responded Woland, 'but the things we say don't change for all that. And so? . ..'
---'He has read the master's work,' said Matthew Levi, 'and asks you to take the master with you and reward him with peace. Is that hard for you to do, spirit of evil?'
---'Nothing is hard for me to do,' answered Woland, 'you know that very well.' He paused and added: 'But why don't you take him with you into the light?'
---'He does not deserve the light, he deserves peace,' Levi said in a sorrowful voice.
---'Tell him it will be done,' Woland replied and added, his eye flashing:
---'And leave me immediately.'
---'He asks that she who loved him and suffered because of him also be taken with him,' Levi addressed Woland pleadingly for the first time.
---'We would never have thought of it without you. Go.' "
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The author idealizes the idea of true love (Master and Margarita) and looks kindly upon real artistic talent. At the same time Bulgakov mocks state (paid) art and pretentiousness among lesser literati and critics. A vengeful and completely naked Margarita runs amok on one occasion, full of righteous wrath, which leads her to devastate a particular critic’s apartment; she could have killed him at that moment, if she knew where he could be found - Margarita therefore acts a part of a demi-goddess, a real artist’s Muse.
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Bulgakov plays the role of an all knowing narrator, who often gives his own witty insights on events and compels the reader in various ways. There are some elements present in the novel that could be interpreted as author’s romanticizing of the "Nature" (witches as free women, satyrs, fairies, nakedness, women as closer to nature are shown as more sympathetic than the men etc.).
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---" 'Ah, don't remind me, Azazello, I was stupid then. And anyhow you mustn't blame me too severely for it -- you don't meet unclean powers every day!'
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That you don't!' agreed Azazello. 'Wouldn't it be pleasant if it was every day!'
---'I like quickness myself,' Margarita said excitedly, 'I like quickness and nakedness ... Like from a Mauser -- bang! Ah, how he shoots!' Margarita cried, turning to the master. 'A seven under the pillow -- any pip you like!...' Margarita was getting drunk, and it made her eyes blaze. "
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I could go on, but the above introduction was enough to familiarize you with the intricacies of the novel that are hidden behind otherwise very accessible text. It’s true that this novel is most suited as a text-book example, but as you can see from all the excerpts I’m adding to the review, it reads really well. Bulgakov’s approach to human fallacies is fundamentally lighthearted in its essence and while he tries to expose our errors, it never feels like he is preaching or anything. Sure, the novel has its downsides; it can drag in some parts (especially around the middle) and it didn’t really resonate with my tastes as I hoped it would, but the ending merges the parallel storylines in a competent manner and the writing style is witty and otherwise faultless. I wouldn’t rush to recommend you this book, but I still think that everyone should give it a try (when you get tired of genre reading is a perfect opportunity to pick this one up) – who knows, you just might find your new favorite.
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-(trivia - how many E.Fruitcakes are missing to form a full house?)
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~ Thrinidir ~

4 Comments:

daydream said...

You know, I had to read that book in tenth grade, but due to the fact we had 30 books from the classics and I am not usually a fan of the Russian literature. But now, I think I will read it.

By the way I knew 3 of the six metaphors: Behemoth, Azazell and Abbadon. ;) I'm somewhat smart! Weee...

ThRiNiDiR said...

I actually like Russians - or at least that much that I've read. I think what makes Master and Margarita great is its accessibility, even though it is a complex and multi-layered work of fiction.

3 out of 6...good for you :)

daydream said...

I guess it's all about taste in books ad preferences. I am usually opened to a lot, when it comes to fiction, but when given the opportunity to read what I want, I would choose Western Authors.

And yeah, thanks. I guess spending so much time digging for mythology does help. ;)

Jen said...

I read this twice, because several friends of mine love it. I read it in English and Romanian, just in case something was lost in the translation (can't read it in the original russian unfortunately). And after all this, I still don't know what people see in it. I mean, I can understand they like the satire and the portrayal of Russia and all that... but I couldn't enjoy it.

 

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