the master and margarita

The Master & Margarita – Book Review

master and margarita

I first encountered Bulgakov’s masterpiece in a play. I was fairly young at the time, the cat Behemoth, a giant black cat walking on two legs stood out for me. Behemoth is fairly unpopular amongst his devilish gang, daringly Margarita does slap him in part two but I won’t give any spoilers. This cat perfectly sums up the absurdity portrayed by Bulgakov, because the book is absurd. The book is a political satire of Soviet Russia and takes place during the 30’s, which is also when it was written, yet it wasn’t published until the 60’s. After the death of Bulgakov, and the man causing the censorship; Stalin.

A satirical book?

Although the book never explicitly cast the Soviet Union aside, there are certain tells that are obvious for people who lived in the USSR. Something which becomes evidently clear with this is the writer’s society, MASSOLIT. These are writers who ‘accepted’ the soviet censorship and gave up their literary freedom to socially climb. This is at the core of Bulgakov, who never became a ‘successful’ writer whilst alive, ironically Bulgakov pleaded with Stalin to let him leave Soviet Russia, to be get his work produced. Stalin denied this, since there would be no use for a Russian writer outside his homeland. Stalin did fancy Bulgakov but could not permit his work to be published, this was a tragedy for Bulgakov. Hence, his literary attack on the MASSOLIT organization truly depicts Bulgakov’s distaste for them. Perhaps this is why Head of the literary bureaucracy MASSOLIT, Berlioz gets a gruesome death.

It is in the First book and the very first chapters you get familiar with the two settings of the book. Russia during the 30’s and the Jerusalem of Pontius Pilate, described by Professor Woland. This is a play on Christianity, the story is for those not familiar, the crucifixion of Jesus, who is Yeshua Ha-Notsri. Berlioz is having a conversation with a young Poet Ivan Ponyrev about atheism when suddenly a stranger arrives. This stranger you soon understand is the Devil, he makes the claims of when he met Jesus in his story about Pilates. Then the stranger makes a prediction about Berlioz decapitation. The exact events occur and confused Ponyrev whom witness the prediction and the realization of it. This causes him to go on a which hunt after the mysterious Woland, which ends in disaster.

Before reading..

I won’t spoil anything else in the book, except that it is not until the second part you are introduced to the Master and Margarita. The book is the devil causing chaos in Moscow, but this is another way of looking at the USSR government abusing their power. Bulgakov makes people in his novel disappear in a ‘humours’ manner, but in reality this happened in the USSR during the 30’s. This is during Stalin’s purge, where people for arbitrary reasons vanish and some never to return and others after Stalins death in the later end of the 50’s. Whilst in the book someone disappears inexplicably to Yalta, in reality they where executed or sent to a Gulag prison camp.

It is against this background you must read this book; it is a satire of its era, the peak of the Soviet Union. The book is filled with these tells for those willing to see it. Other than that, it’s humours in its absurdity. I particularly enjoy Ponyrev describing Behemoth riding the train, how absurd he found it that a giant cat had not only boarded but was trying to pay for its fare. The conductor simply dismisses the cat but shows no shock that a cat tried to purchase a ticket from her. This tiny paragraph Bulgakov’s magnificent storytelling, the surrealism in the events unfolding and the acceptance from everyone around also hints at his own emotions.

What is my take away from this book?

I really enjoyed this book, I thought it was fun to realize all the satirical remarks. But it is also complicated, I am sure I missed a lot of them. This may be different for someone experiencing that time in the USSR, this book would probably had been hysterical. Yet, it is considered one of the masterpieces of the 20th century. So if you are willing not only to put in a lot of work reading this brick but also looking up things which you find peculiar and you will find a deeper meaning.

Where I read the book

This book, I read in Amsterdam. I love reading outside this is easily done during the Dutch summer. They have a ‘forrest’ (which is honestly more a huge park) where you can swim, paddle canoe and hike. Or, have a coffee at the café! So give Amsterdamse Bos a visit if you are nearby.  If you are keen on Amsterdam – I have all the local Amsterdam travel tips.

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