The Master and Margarita

With my usual slow pace, it took me a couple of months to get through Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita. It’s an entertaining read. The devil and his associates turn up in Soviet Moscow and begin causing havok; the book is a farce, concerning itself mainly with the unlikely chains of events that occur as the result of the improbable feats performed by this troupe.

The book touches on – and satirises – a lot of subjects: writers and literary critics, the greedy and status-seekers, the bureaucracy of Moscow, love and desire in contest with respectability. Threaded through the novel is a second story of Pontius Pilate around the day of the execution of Yeshua (something that he participates in and yet regrets, having felt a connection to the philosopher when they spoke) – a story which at times both echoes and contrasts the themes within the depiction of events in Moscow.

I did find the plot a little thin in places, but the book picked up with the introduction of the titular Margarita in the second half; the story thereon follows mainly her own journey seeking to rediscover her lost lover, the Master. The highlight of this is probably Satan’s ball on the night of the full moon, where Margarita plays hostess:

The ball fell on her all at once in the form of light, and, with it, of sound and smell. Taken under the arm by Koroviev, Margarita saw herself in a tropical forest. Red-breasted, green-tailed parrots fluttered from liana to liana and cried out deafeningly: ‘Delighted!’ But the forest soon ended, and its bathhouse stuffiness changed at once to the coolness of a ballroom with columns of some yellowish, sparkling stone.
[…]
A low wall of white tulips had grown up in front of Margarita, and beyond it she saw numberless lamps under little shades and behind them the white chests and black shoulders of tailcoaters. Then Margarita understood where the sound of the ball was coming from. The roar of trumpets crashed down on her, and the soaring of violins that burst from under it doused her body as if with blood. The orchestra of about a hundred and fifty men was playing a polonaise.

There is almost too much going on in the novel to put into words, and I’ve certainly not come close to covering all of it (or even much of it, really). Let’s just say it’s a worthwhile read (though you may want to learn what a Primus stove is beforehand, or you might end up confused by some of the final scenes, like I was).

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