Sunday, 14 April 2013

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Warning: Some Spoilers Ahead

I am not quite sure what I think about this book. I enjoyed it, but I didn't love it. The sudden twists and turns in tone didn't throw me off, but they did leave me a bit discombobulated. I wonder if I was trying to read it too closely, if I should have just let it wash over me the first time, and then gone back to think about it some more.

People talk about this as a comic novel, and most of the time, I didn't get that impression. Maybe not my type of humour? But the events that were supposed to be comic read as horrifying little vignettes, and so affected me that way.

In The Master and Margarita, the Devil (Woland) comes to Moscow, minor devils in tow. They upend many people's lives. A few deaths are caused (more about that later), many people are taken into custody by the secret police, most of those remanded to an insane asylum, thousands more embarrassed and revealed. Human nature, in all its weakness and pettiness, is fully on display, and so much of the evil Woland uncovers is of the petty kind, people acting from fear or weakness or greed or frustration, performing small unkindnesses that cause greater evils.

Against these smaller evils looms the greater evil of the state, fostering a world in which these petty small acts are magnified, taken to be indicative of corruption, and punished harshly. In a world where blowing off steam could be heard by the wrong person and bring down the eyes of the government,  the potential of these small unkindnesses is way out of proportion to their intent.

Acts of truth can be punished as harshly as those of lies. While the Devil and his minions (including Behemoth, a huge black cat with a penchant for violence) lay bare some of these hypocrisies and sins, what they are doing is making them more public.

Margarita is the lover of the Master, an institutionalized author, reported on by a neighbour for possessing subversive literature (his own novel, about Pontius Pilate.) When Woland enters her life, she is ready to seize the chance, although not above petty cruelties of her own. The Master is broken by the response to his book, and Margarita would do anything to reclaim him.

The actions of Woland and his entourage were frequently traumatizing, and sometimes out of proportion, but they always seem to have had their point. There is little Woland can do to the citizens of Moscow that hasn't already been done (except, perhaps, drive a few of them mad.) But if the existence of the Devil is true, in a society that forbids religion, then so is his opposite, who mostly enters through the chapters on Pontius Pilate.

But Woland is not only there to punish. Two deaths occur, true, but one was of a man who truly deserved it, by his own standards, and the other was a death Woland saw and did nothing to prevent, but did not actually cause. He is also there to mete out some semblance of justice. Someone has to attend to those who caused great harm intentionally, and he's weary of the job. But he is also there to give peace to those who have suffered and deserve some respite, those who are not pure enough to enter heaven, but do not deserve hell. In the end, even Pilate is given what he always wanted.

I need to reread this book at some point, and see what a second reading would do. For now, I'm going to let it sit and ferment. This book is definitely worth a read, but it challenged me at every point. There was no place to sit and get comfortable - and after all, that might be the point.

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