27 June 2007

Book Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Banned Book Challenge #3

The Master and Margarita It begins in a Moscow park where the poet Ivan and the editor Berlioz go to talk. There they meet a strange foreigner who tells them a tale of Pontius Pilate and makes some predictions which sound absurd but swiftly come true in a gruesome manner, leaving Berlioz dead and Ivan locked up in a lunatic asylum. Soon the foreigner - Woland - and his retinue move in on the Variety Theatre, where they stage a black magic spectacular which creates an uproar all over town. As the theatre falls into chaos and the asylum’s rooms fill, Ivan meets a fellow resident who calls himself the Master, an author whose unpublished novel was the source of Woland’s story - and who has realised just who Woland is.

Outside the asylum walls, the Master’s lover Margarita is willing to do anything to secure his return - even if that means accepting the offer made to her by the fanged Azazello. She can have both the Master and his manuscript - to which she was as much devoted as to him - if she will spend one night as Satan’s hostess at his grand ball. Endure the ordeal without flinching, and they will both be free.

I have to confess that for a long time this book left me utterly confused. The totally bizarre antics of a totally bizarre troupe of ... whatever they were ... interspersed with scenes featuring what I quickly took to be a quite different version of Pilate and his actions from that of the Bible; what was the point of any of it? And why would it have been banned? Finally I got frustrated enough to Google it, and discovered that it was written in the time of Stalin, when people could indeed be locked up at a moment’s notice, or disappeared to Siberia just as unceremoniously as poor Styopa found himself transported to Yalta. And so I had my very belated Eureka! moment, and a lot of it did begin to make sense, including why Stalin wouldn’t have been impressed. People being controlled by puppets, those who object being swiftly removed, and only the unquestioningly obedient coming through unscathed; not a very flattering portrait of post-revolution Russia. But I still preferred the comparative sanity of the excerpts from the Master’s novel, which were neatly woven into the main plot and provided a respite from the chaos of witches and vampires and talking cats and all the rest. One review I found on the net described the style as grotesque, and it’s an apt description; it reminded me of Edgar Allen Poe, although that could just have been because the orchestra of apes made me think of The Murders in the Rue Morgue. There was that same nightmarish quality, too, only more so, which no doubt befits the regime it was written to satirise but which made it an uncomfortable read. Being creeped out via ghost stories I can take; being freaked out ... not so much.

Rating: C+

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Header image shows detail of A Young Girl Reading by Jean-Honoré Fragonard, c. 1776