The Master and Margarita

It is a really well-known book, I swear…

Manuscripts don’t burn.

Now, I say that because it turns out that what I thought was a very famous novel, a classic of 20th century literature, was in fact not a name (title or author) recognised by 3/4 of my immediate family and they’re an intelligent, well-read group of people. On the other hand, some of my close friends rated it in their Top 10 or even Top 5 books of all time. I had obviously got the wrong end of the stick in regards to the prominence of this book in the public eye, but I do not believe that I underestimated the importance of Bulgakov’s masterpiece, inspired by Gogol and Dostoyevsky, the legend of Faust and life in communist Russia…

The Master and Margarita tells the story, in two books, of the devil’s arrival in 1930’s Moscow, his retinue in tow, and the havoc that they wreak throughout the highly atheistic Soviet city. It is also the story of the eponymous title characters – The Master who has written a brilliant book about Pilate meeting Jesus before sentencing him to death, and Margarita his devoted lover, fleeing a passionless marriage. Some of he most pivotal scenes in this aforementioned book are also played out, detailing with a version of events that some may not be used to.

I picked probably the most instantly recognisable quotation from the book, which became a common saying in Russia after its publication, but one which is central to the themes of the book and also autobiographical – Bulgakov himself burnt an early draft of the book, before completing it some years later. (‘Second-grade freshness’ is another contributed from this book that is a personal favourite). The Soviet satire laced throughout the novel, with numerous underhand references to the activities of the secret police and shady disappearances, whilst at the same time satirising life in general (the pursuit of money, modern amenities, etc) served as one of the main catalysts for The Master and Margarita‘s initial success. Bulgakov himself was accused of being a ‘white guard’ ( a term used in the book and the title of one of Bulgakov’s earlier plays – meaning in opposition to the ‘red’ Soviet union ) and a counter-revolutionary.

From the very opening chapter, wherein a conversation between two atheists discussing the impossibility of the existence of Jesus and God is interrupted somewhat rudely by the Devil himself to the mayhem and destruction his retinue cause (Behemoth, Azazel and Koroviev being the most prominent amongst them), this book perfectly balances the humorous with serious, the sublime with ridiculous – all tied up in the beautiful imagery (such as in the description of Jerusalem in Pilate’s time). It is a passionate love story, a merciless satire, a slapstick comedy, a historical epic, a dark fantasy… this book’s got everything, and you should read it. As a final aside, if you happen to stumble across the Russian televised version of this (it’s on YouTube, for example) then watch at your own peril. ‘Hokey’ doesn’t even begin to cover it…

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