I’ve now finished re-reading this amazing Russian novel – completed at the end of the 1930s but completely impossible for any of it to have been published at the time, and it only saw the light of day after the author’s death and after the Khrushchev thaw. It was better than I’d remembered it, although it’s twenty years since I last read it, so it may well be my memory that’s at fault… there’s plenty to think about and try and make sense of.
Three plots are interwoven: the devil and his entourage arrive in contemporary Moscow and cause various kinds of mayhem, exposing various sorts of people in different ways; a rewriting of the encounter between Jesus and Pontius Pilate at his pre-crucifixion trial in Jerusalem, which is part of a novel written by the ‘master’ of the title (you can imagine how that might have gone down with Stalin’s censor), and what must be called a love story between the master and Margarita which is eventually brought to a supernatural, happy conclusion. Interspersed are scenes in an asylum which recall the ending of the film The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari.
I found myself attentive to the political implications of the novel, thinking about what Bulgakov might be saying about the Soviet Union of his own time: there is no getting the better of the devil (who he?) who betrays everyone and ruins any and everyone at the slightest whim; the tangled web which can and does enmesh everyone; people disappearing suddenly never to be seen again; human folly and greed trying to take advantage of chaotic situations…and how stories (and/or the truth) can be twisted and distorted in so many ways.
It’s not a heavy read; on the contrary, it’s lively and quite fast-paced, with magical plot and events whirling you along rapidly as the author skilfully manipulates your response: you like the devil and his associates, especially Behemoth the cat, you sympathise with Pontius Pilate, you see a different Jesus, one who also makes you reflect on his message.
A powerful and very enjoyable read, it moves up quite a few places on my list of all-time favourites.