March 25th, 2005

was turned off, i got a secret for you

               Even the Devil believes in God. He just doesn't like him much. The devil, God, and a would-be godless and man-created perfect society are the background of "The Master and Margarita." The theme is despair, the medium is dark humor, as only the Russians know how. The book is reminiscent of Robertson Davies' "Deptford Trilogy" and has been echoed by Joseph Heller's "Catch 22" and Ken Kesey's "One Flew Over the Cuckoo Nest." If you liked these novels, you may find "Master and Margarita" very much to your tastes.
Bulgakov struggled with this, his masterpiece, up to the end of his life in Soviet Russia. He witnessed the surreal cannibalistic madness of Stalin's ravenings in that war-weary land. After a while, every human seeks to normalize his surroundings in some way, lest he go mad. Bulgakov sought this form of peace with this novel which must have been his attempt to piece the ragged fabric of Soviet life into a meaningful covering.

The problem when we, as Americans who neither speak Russian, nor know much Russian recent history, read this book, we can come up against a lack of contextual knowledge to truly appreciate what Bulgakov is doing. He's unraveling his weird world and trying to criticize and make sense of it. For us, reading this in English and not knowing the historical background and the inside jokes, it is probably a dim shadow of a Russian's experience when reading the same novel. I am not sure how much I am really getting from this, other than to know I am reading a brilliant satire and a very richly-written novel.

So, as non-Russians, we probably only get about fifty percent of what is behind the wild antics and bizarre incidents, starting with the prediction that the editor Berlioz will end the day beheaded by a Russian woman, and following with a cat who drinks vodka and boards streetcars, paying his 10-kopeck fare and escorting the foreign "consultant" who is surely the devil. The sections of the book dealing with Pontius Pilate and one Yeshua are sure to irritate a believer in God, but Bulgakov may be revealing that a godless society has no understanding of the divine, and soon dissolves into despair and disaster. I think Bulgakov struggled with the question "Why can't we kill God and have a true Communist society?" Whether he himself understood it fully, he achieves an explanation of sorts in his sarcastic parody of life gone terribly, terribly wrong.