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The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

Updated: Sep 21, 2022

I finally listened to everyone telling me this was their favourite book and read The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov. Does this classic need much of an introduction? Probably not, so I will try and keep it short.

The novel is set in two distinct historical moments: in Jerusalem on the day of Jesus’ crucifixion, and in Soviet Moscow of the 1930s. Book one opens at the hour of a hot spring sunset in the Russian capital, where we meet two poets – one of who in the final hour of his life, though he does not know that yet. Their evening starts out like any other, when suddenly a strange figure appears and joins them on the bench they’re sitting on. The mysterious “Professor” Woland begins to tell the tale of an encounter between Pontius Pilate and Yeshua which he proclaims to have witnessed. Adding to this story a prophecy of how the poet Berlioz is going to die, which comes true shortly thereafter, Woland is unveiled to his fellow protagonists as a dark magician. Of course the reader will soon discover that the strange foreigner is not any old wizard but rather the Devil himself who has travelled to Moscow with his chaotic band of associates to hold a ball for underworldly friends and foes. The gang wreaks havoc in the city as they set out to cause mischief and bring out the worst in everyone they meet, landing multiple victims in the psychiatric hospital in the process. It is in this institution that we meet the eponymous master who has burned the manuscript of his rejected novel about Pontius Pilate and Jesus.

It is not until later in the book that we meet Margarita, the master’s lover, who was left behind when he turned his back on the world and found refuge in the hospital. Margarita is a fearless and intelligent woman, and takes it surprisingly well to be invited to the Devil’s midnight ball as his date. She is turned into a witch and granted not only magical powers but also a wish from Woland himself.

Trying to write a very short summary of this book showed me why I had no idea what treat I was in for when I started reading this book, even though I heard so many people rave about it: the story such an intricately woven construct of many layers, it is impossible to do it justice in a few short paragraphs.

Bulgakov dives deep into human nature – the good, the bad and the ugly. No character here is perfect, none is purely evil. Woland, the Devil, is the best example for this. His charm, his generosity, and his mercy make him a complex and ambiguous character. He observes the people throughout time and space and draws some conclusions about humanity. The parallels he draws between Pontius Pilate story and Moscow’s inhabitants show a human nature that does not change: greed, fear, and the corruption of power are ever present.

At its core, The Master and Margarita is a story about freedom, specifically the freedom from oppression and the freedom of expression. ‘Manuscripts do not burn’ might be one of the novels most defining quotes. The importance of standing up to political or religious restrictions and the role the arts play in this are central themes of the story.

Well, I tried to keep it short, but there is simply too much in this book to represent it in a single sentence or characterise it with one word. But it is in the abundance of themes and characters, of scenes and wisdoms where the beauty of this masterpiece lies. The Master and Margarita is a wild ride! Not only is it impossible to anticipate where the story will end, but even within paragraphs and sentences the tale changes direction unexpectedly. The effect might be somewhat jarring, but this only enhances the strengths of the book – a force of nature pulling the reader in all directions, engulfing you like waves of the ocean. Abundant in humour, wit and charm, Bulgakov’s work is simply a joy to read and unlike any other book I’ve encountered. I am already looking forward to re-reading this whirlwind of a book!

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