Book Reviews

The Master and Margarita, or the Genius of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet Magical Realism

The Master and Margarita, or the Genius of Mikhail Bulgakov’s Soviet Magical Realism

During the beginning of self-isolation, I went on a book buying binge. After all, there probably will never be a better time to read all the great works I’ve always been meaning to read. When I was looking at book recommendations, I kept seeing The Master and Margarita mentioned again and again. That, along with East of Eden by Steinbeck seemed to be Reddit’s favorite novel. What convinced me to read this book however, is the wacky plot summary.

One fine day, the devil and his two apprentices come to wreak havoc in Soviet-era Moscow, exposing the corruption and hypocrisy of early-Soviet society. Somehow, in the middle of all this are flashbacks of Pontius Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Nozri (Jesus) in Jerusalem during Jesus’s trial and moments leading up to his crucifixion. “What on earth? How?” I know, trust me it’s weird but somehow it works. What impressed me the most about this book was actually Bulgakov’s genius in seamlessly tying together the two disparate storylines. This novel’s “devil comes to town” storyline is inspired by Goethe’s Faust.

It so happens that the first (and iconic – there’s even a statue commemorating this scene in the location) scene is set in Patriarch Ponds, where two members of the Massolit (a literary society) are discussing a poem Ivan (also called “Homeless”) wrote that is deemed as “showing Jesus in too positive of a light.” They are promptly joined by a strange foreigner who argues and tries to prove that Jesus is indeed real. This first scene alone manages to achieve so so much. It introduces one of the novel’s central characters, introduces the setting, criticizes the Soviet-era literary society’s censorship practices, and the Soviets’ insistence on renouncing religion (it should also be noted that the Church had been quite deeply ingrained in Russian culture prior to the revolution).

One cool aspect about the novel is that “The Master” and “Margarita” don’t appear until the second half of the novel and I would make the argument that the novel doesn’t really have “main characters.” Of course like all great novels, The Master is based on Bulgakov himself and Margarita is based on his third wife Elena who was a champion for his writings and fought to publish the book after his death. The most iconic line in the novel is “Manuscripts Don’t Burn” which is based on a true event, as Bulgakov actually burned the original manuscript for the novel as he feared the Soviet government and had to rewrite the novel by memory.

Once you’ve finished the book or are at least three quarters of the way through..please check out BBC’s The Forum, an in-depth discussion by experts. They did an excellent episode on this book. The podcast provides background information on the various aspects of Mikhail Bulgakov’s life which inspired many parts of the book, and most of the questions I had while reading the book were answered in this podcast. Why is The Master and Margarita so weird? Well, it isn’t because Bulgakov was enthusiastic about writing in the style of magical realism but the alternative was censorship and the gulag. Quite sad though because even through its over-the-top magical realism The Master and Margarita wasn’t published until after his death, and even when it was first published it was a censored version. The complete version didn’t get published until years after which brings me to my next point…. Translations!

Note on Translations: There are several translations of the book, and some of them are shorter because they have been translated from an earlier, censored edition. My suggestion is to get the Pevear & Volokhonsky edition which is a translation of the more complete version, especially if you are unfamiliar with early Soviet history because it has extensive footnotes that provide you with a lot of historical context. Regardless, please make sure you check the reviews of the translation before buying a copy because some translations are easier to read and some translations are based on an earlier censored version. Based on my cursory research, about 12% of the novel is missing in the censored version, mainly passages alluding to criticisms of the Soviet government. Then again, many do buy the censored version and say the translation is best in capturing the original humor so it’s up to you. For example, a central plotline of the novel are citizens fighting over a dead man’s nice apartment – highlighting the housing crisis during the early years of the Soviet government which resulted from government policies.

Who Is It For?

This book has quickly become one of my absolute favorites and I highly recommend it to anyone wishing to read a fun and crazy story with a healthy dose of morality. However the groups who would enjoy this best are:

  • History buffs: History buffs, but specifically Russian history buffs will really appreciate this. It’s not hard finding a fun film/book/tv show set in the cold war era, but not so much during the early days of Soviet Russia..
  • Socialists: Here’s a reality check for you. Socialism didn’t always work! I know, right? Unbelievable. I’m as shocked as you are..
  • Poltical Junkies: Again, the book makes fun of government officials and Soviet policies, making it perfect for political junkies.
  • Fans of Magical Realism: Are you a fan of Murakami, Gabriel Garcia Marquez and the like? You’re in luck. Though people seem to consider him “a Soviet-era writer” or “one of the greats of Russian literature”, I identify him with magical realism more.

Other Famous Works by Mikhail Bulgakov

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