Master & Margarita – Bulhakov

The manuscript that did not burn:

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Written without any hope of release in the totalitarian Soviet state, The Master and Margarita is a universal and complex masterpiece of literature and one of the greatest books that I ever read.  It is one of these books to which I am coming back over and over again and each time the familiar narrative in which Devil visits Moscow and love conquers despair, reads as a completely different story, a literary puzzle that escapes easy interpretation.

On the plot level, The Master and Margarita  is a story where Satan (called Woland) and his entourage appear in the anti-religious Soviet Moscow the 1930s of the twentieth century in order to intervene in the fate of a dispirited writer called the Master ( Bulgakov’s alter ego). In the course of the novel, Woland unites Master with Margarita and rescues Mater’s manuscript that relates the story of Jesus meeting Pontius Pilate from destruction, thus allowing the Master to attain peace and happiness. The three distinct themes of the novel: Woland’s visit to Moscow, Master and Margarita’s love story, and the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate, are intertwined and connected by using a literary technique reminiscent of film editing.

Structurally, the novel consists of 32 chapters that are constructed using different literary techniques and patterns ranging from satire, crime, adventure stories, fairy tales and biblical parables.  Even with the lack of cohesion in a structural and intellectual sense, these elements are seamlessly combined into a dazzling narrative. The novel immediately draws the reader in a strange world hatched in the imagination of the author, where realism is interwoven with fantasy and where the plot is developing so quickly that it is difficult to stop reading. The fact that the title characters of the novel are introduced only in the second half of the novel is intriguing and it adds to the tension and makes reading more captivating.

The Master and Margarita is a complex and multilayered literary work that can be read at many different levels.  Despite the philosophical theme pondering the meaning and purpose of life, love and madness, the novel is simple and light in reception, especially when read as a satire of everyday life and bureaucracy in the Stalinist system.   The novel dazzles and delights, but it can also scare. The author has built into the narrative a mood of terror and insecurity, continued from first page to last. Cat Behemoth, who gets on the tram and wants to pay for the ticket, but is not allowed because “cats do not travel by tram” is both charming and menacing at the same time.

The sense of uncertainty and unease is also exemplified in the novel by the unorthodox portrayal of the Satan. The Master and Margarita teems with echoes of Goethe’s Faust and the link between Mephistopheles and Woland is obvious.   However, Bulgakov’s devil is not the usual evil, selfish and immoral without limits hellish demon, but full of calm and wisdom gentleman who, although “a force of darkness” in the end brings “peace and happiness” to Master and Margarita.  The manner in which the author presents Woland, subconsciously forces the reader to confront his own idea of “unclean force” with the picture created in the novel and is thought provoking, even more so, considering that Bulgakov wrote and rewrote The Master and Margarita for the last 12 years of his life and died while still working on it. This sunset novel is a culmination of his life, the last testament where he reveals to the world he knew he was leaving the many timeless truths about good and evil, love, art and human nature.


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