Representing the magical realism style of fiction, Master and Margarita is one of my favourite novels written by a Soviet writer Mikhail Bulgakov. The novel was written during the Stalinist regime and thus attracted a lot of attention from censors. Master and Margarita had a tragic story and was only published after the death of the author. When I was a high school student in Russia, the book was included in our curriculum for the literature subject. Thus, I first read the book as a student and just now finished reading it for the second time as an adult. To my surprise, not many western literature aficionados are familiar with this book and thus I would like to share my insights into this amazing piece of art.
The beauty of this book is that it is a novel within a novel. The two plots evolve side by side and thus create a feeling of suspense and mystery. One novel takes place in Moscow in the 1930s, another novel happens in Yershalaim (Jerusalem) capturing the execution of Yeshua (Jesus). From the outset, these two novels are seemingly unrelated. Yet, as you delve deeper into their plots, you realize that they complement each other touching upon major controversies of human nature such as cowardice and courage, sincerity and dishonesty, egoism and altruism, greed and generosity, love and hate.
Instead of revealing the plot of the novels, I would instead like to discuss what this novel can deliver for a non-Russian speaking reader. Interestingly enough, a lot of western readers talk about Master and Margarita in the context of Russian political environment and dissidence. Some people argue that it could only be truly understood by the people who lived in the Soviet Union. I would not completely agree with this point. I believe that the novel can offer important insights to all readers irrespective of their backgrounds. So why should you read Master and Margarita?
- The book provides a great critical insight into life in the Soviet Union. Small details, conversations of the heroes capture the life of Soviet citizens well. Starting from poor customer service to the lack of housing (“housing question”), the novel talks about the poignant areas of Soviet life.
- The book provides a great discussion of the existential issues of all times. For instance, take an example of a dialogue between Woland, Berlioz and Bezdomny at the start of the book raising a question about the existence of God. The dialogue ironically depicts Soviet atheist rationalism and closed-mindedness. But more importantly it raises the question: do we have control over our lives?
- The novel questions taken for granted assumptions and beliefs. I love magical realism as a genre for its ability to break the boundary of common sense. How about a talking cat paying for a ride on a trolley bus? How about a magic cream that turns Margarita into a witch? How about magically recovering a manuscript that was burnt in a fireplace? By appealing to the supernatural, Bulgakov was able to expose the drawbacks of the Soviet system.
- I love the non-linear conception of time in the novel. The past, present and future are all mixed together as vegetables in a salad bowl. Is our future predetermined as the tragic death of Berlioz was predetermined and related to Annushka’s spilled oil?
- One of my favourite takeaways from this novel is the question of redefining the meaning of good and evil. What do we mean by good and evil, anyway? In the novel, the Satan, Woland is at times kind and generous (remember his generous gift to Margarita) while Moscow citizens are represented as greedy and materialistic (remember the episode with the Black Magic show by Woland). Maybe our definitions of the good and evil are outdated or maybe these concepts are not so contradictory after all?
Overall, the novel offers a lot of insights that are relevant to readers across the world. In particular, contemporary readers may reflect on the dogmatism and closed-mindedness in relation to our values and beliefs. I hope that contemporary writers will be able to create beautiful novels exposing dogmatism and closed-mindedness of our capitalist societies.