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By Bulgakov, Mikhail
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokonsky
New York: Penguin Books, 1997
567 pages

Comments by Bob Corbett
September, 2014

For me this was a very difficult novel. I found it challenging, fascinating, aggravating, interesting and most of all puzzling. I often had no idea what was going on. Nonetheless, I kept reading, often wanting to pitch it away, but never able to give up on it.

The novel opens with a conversation between an editor of a Moscow literary journal and his friend and poet. The poet wrote a poem on assignment from the editor and the editor is displeased. It is the 1920s or early 30s in Moscow and the hardline communists are in power. The editor had asked the poet, with the strange name of Homeless, to write a poem about Jesus. The poet wrote one that satirically attacked Jesus and the editor is upset. His anger is that the poet, while being ďproperlyĒ attacking Jesus, nonetheless, seemed to treat Jesus as the savior that he is held to be within Christianity. The editor was expecting and wanting a treatment of Jesus that wasnít written within that frame work.

In the midst of this discussion and argument between the editor and poet, a very strange man comes along to the public bench where they are sitting and joins the conversation with gusto. He attacks the editorís view and goes off on a wild rant about who Jesus really was. His position is that while he condemns Jesus, he says it is even important that Jesus be the Jesus he is supposed to be since this allows the devil to be whom he really is, the leader of the opposition, so to speak. Later we will discover that this speaker is actually the devil himself. On his view it is only because Jesus is who history has says he is that the devil and his work can successfully exist. His successes are precisely because Jesus demands too much and this allows the space for the devilís own successes.

From this point on the novel moves back and forth between the Moscow of the period and to Jerusalem in the time of Jesus (and the devil!), and it is all to make this case that unless Jesus is taken to be the one demanding the perfection of human being, which is beyond humans, that the forces of darkness and evil can succeed. They NEED Jesus to be whom he is said to be within the Christian religious tradition.

At least that seems a reading of the novel that makes it work out for me. Iím still somewhat unhappy with my own overview of whatís going on.

If I go back to the title: THE MASTER AND MARGARITA and couple that with the very last chapter, Epilogue, I come up with a bit different understanding. The master is writing a book and I think it is this one. He writes it as a detailed history from the point of view of an all-seeing and all-knowing author. However, in the Epilogue he realizes that he has been deceived and that what he had THOUGHT was actually happening was not what really went on and that he has been mistaken. He reminds us that all the action of the novel takes place within just a very few days and that everyone in Moscow was caught up in the frenzied strange actions that were going on and thus everyone, and especially himself, the author, was subject to an hysteria that led to what he wrote.

I find myself rather attracted to this view.

I have read quite a number of novels in the tradition of Magical Realism within the Latin American tradition. The structure of this novel has features that are in common with that tradition, in the utterly fantastical events that are dealt with as if they were everyday realities. However, Bulgakov seems to deal with it in a different manner, especially with much less humor and more of a matter of fact fashion. I found that a bit difficult to accept in any easy way.

In the end I must admit that this was not a book I grew to love much. Rather, I was driven to keep reading by two primary motivations, the desire to see where in the world it was going and secondly to see if I could simply make any sense out of it at all. Iím not sure that I very much succeeded in either aim.

On the other hand Iím not at all sorry Iíve read the book. I found it a serious challenge and some parts of it were just amazingly imaginative and daring. However, Iím not going to be running off and looking for other books the author Bulgakov may have written.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett