Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita crosscuts between nineteen-thirties Moscow and Roman Judaea, and features characters ranging from Pontius Pilate to a severed head to a demonic cat with a proclivity for fancy dress. The plot famously revolves around a macabre series of events and speculation concerning the appearance of the Devil in Soviet Moscow, but relies upon the lightness and wit of a brand of satirical magical realism. (Maybe satire, derived from the hybrid satyrs, was itself magical realism’s origin, though that oversimplifies.)
Burned and censored after its posthumous publication in 1966, Bulgakov’s masterpiece remains a wonderful tribute to his many literary inspirations, including occultish elements of Goethe with dry humor reminiscent of Nikolai Gogol. Bulgakov’s sentences elaborate a kind of music that is all his own. A master himself, he has an uncanny skill for merging slapstick humor with highbrow literary and musical references. This narrative frequently blurs the line of morality, confusing the reader’s sense of good and evil. Bulgakov’s Muscovites are portrayed as greedy, opportunistic imps, and I often found myself applauding the Devil’s infernal handiwork. The Devil’s tour on Earth seems almost humanitarian in this respect! He injects anarchy into the rigid, bureaucratic social structure, and playfully manipulates the machinations of government for his own amusement.
After setting this book down, I was confronted by the idea that, by interacting with this story, I was able to escape the confines of my own cosmopolitan existence. Throughout these complex allegories, The Master and Margarita ultimately succeeds in saying, sure, social conditioning is a bitch. But it’s damned hilarious too.
William Brewer is an intern at Guernica.