Moscow, Mania, the Master and His Margarita!

In the literary circles of erstwhile Soviet Union, a famous proverb postulated, “Manuscripts don’t burn.”  The phrase celebrates the permanency of art and the defiance of Russian authors when faced with institutionalised censorship. Writers memorised material, refrained from penning down their ideas, printed secret carbon copies and sent microfilm versions of their work to foreign publishers. The powerful maxim can be traced to Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, one of the 20th century’s unforgettable lessons in magical realism. Simultaneously, the novel stands testament to the condition of Soviet writers, courtesy of the systematic oppression executed by Glavlit, the General Directorate for the Protection of State Secrets in the Press.

The Master and Margarita was born and disseminated through endless struggles. Bulgakov started writing in 1928. Two years later, disillusioned with being a storyteller in such a repressive regime, he burnt the manuscript. His apartment had been raided, diaries confiscated and repeated requests for emigration stalled by Stalin. In 1931, he resumed work and rewrote the initial portion from memory. Four weeks before his death in 1940, Bulgakov stopped writing. From 1968 to several decades after, only a highly censored copy was available in print. Fortunately, the process called samizdat was also underway. Considered dissident activity, controversial publications were manually reproduced. Bulgakov’s original text, containing all omitted sections, was circulated among trusted circles. Finally, the text dating to 1940 saw the light of the day in 1973. Another edition, that compiled all previous versions, was published only after 1989. Therefore, the fact that we are able to read and appreciate this book is a deeply humbling realisation in itself.

So, what does it take to enjoy The Master and Margarita? Here’s a checklist:

  • Sense of humour (You must be able to recognise and enjoy a good laugh)
  • Sensitivity (To understand the pain of those consistently marginalised)
  • Strangeness (Quite a lot of this; preferably all the eccentricity available)

These are the central emotional experiences that control Bulgakov’s masterpiece. The narrative is an intoxicating potion, prepared in a cauldron bubbling with unhinged humans, the Devil and his minions, detectives, nosy tenants, bustling cities, Jewish feasts, asylums, literary committees, historical events, counterfeit money, housing shortage and every little thing that surpasses the limitations of “This can’t possibly be happening.”  The Master and Margarita straddle three, interconnected plotlines that transcend time and recklessly play with the human notions of redemption, good, evil and life on earth. Each story is nested within the other. Each opens the gate to another world.

In the first section, the Devil visits Moscow. Satan comes as Professor Woland, a black magic enthusiast. Accompanying him are his notorious crew: a colossal black cat called Behemoth, the vampire Hella, the valet Koroviev-Faggot and a trickster named Azazello. Together, they stage a theatrical performance that makes a mockery of the Russian elite. They instigate disappearances, arrests and ridiculous situations that cause a feverish collapse of the social fabric and law enforcement. Through their antics, Bulgakov exposes the most spiteful features of Soviet society; uncontrollable consumerism, the clampdown on the production of literature, unnecessary enthusiasm about private lives, corruption and autocratic bureaucracy.

The second storyline is set in Jerusalem, the time during which Pontius Pilate served as the Procurator of Judea. History best remembers Pilate as the official who oversaw the proceedings against Jesus Christ and ordered his Crucifixion. In this book, Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Hebrew equivalent of Jesus the Nazarene) is brought to Pilate after he is accused of inciting rebellion. Pilate is immediately drawn to his compassionate philosophies but cannot allow a man who has challenged Caesar to be freed. Overcome by guilt at his inability to save Yeshua from the gallows, Pilate is condemned to a painful life. For 2000 years, his dog Banga and he occupy a hilltop, waiting for forgiveness.

Finally, we come to the people who lend the book its name. The Master wins a lottery and moves to the countryside where he spends his days writing his novel about Pontius Pilate. He meets and falls in love with Margarita, a woman trapped in a loveless marriage. She is not only devoted to the Master but is deeply connected to his writing. Tragedy strikes when influential critics refuse to publish the Master’s book and subject it to scathing criticism. Tormented by failure, he turns himself over to a psychiatric clinic. Margarita is left hurt and dazed, frantically searching for her lover and desperate for revenge.

The Master and Margarita is a masterclass in magical realism. Injecting the Moscow cityscape with supernatural elements, Bulgakov lets the madness run berserk. And he does so unapologetically, without explaining the why of things. Behemoth is a sarcastic cat who enjoys vodka with pickled mushrooms. Neighbors turn into flying pigs. An accountant disappears, leaving behind his empty suit who sits at the desk and diligently finishes work. Cramped apartments can acquire the fifth dimension for the Devil to host a grand feast.  These things happen. Deal with it.

One of the novel’s most famous episodes is Professor Woland’s Midnight’s Ball where he invites Margarita to be the hostess. She is bathed in blood, rose oil and prepared for the event. The venue of the grand feast consists of several fantastical spaces and things; a tropical forest, a fountain of champagne and a grand choir of orangutans. The ball is for the Dead; specifically, those who committed heinous crimes when they were alive. Coffins and gallows tumble out of the fireplace and the remains of the invitees transform themselves into well-dressed, charismatic guests.

It is widely believed that Bulgakov designed this celebration as an ode to the deep-rooted, cyclical nature of evil. The guests represent historical figures. In 1935, he was invited to a magnificent ball hosted by the US Ambassador to the Soviet Union. The extravagance was unimaginable, including Finnish tulips, a recreated forest and a menagerie including zebras, bears, parakeets, pheasants and goats. The 400 attendees included the likes of Nikolai Bukharin (Bolshevik revolutionary), Maxim Litvinov (Foreign Minister), Karl Radek (Communist Leader) and renowned members of the political circles. Stalin was absent. Interestingly, Bulgakov never openly mentioned Stalinism. Instead, he conjured mystical ideas to symbolise the strange happenings in totalitarian regimes.

The Master and Margarita is like an indulgent, baked delicacy. When you hold up the glass dish, you can ascertain the distinct layers of meat, vegetables, and cheese. But it is only when the spoon cracks through the hot surface and scoops up a delicious bite, can the complexity of flavours be truly appreciated. The layers merge into a single, delicious whole, and the juices begin to flow. If this thought makes you hungry, then The Master and Margarita will surely satiate that appetite.