Friday, 12 January 2007

The Master and Margarita bookcover; Everyman's LibraryReview: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)

It seems that Moscow will never be the same after the arrival of the strange professor. Accompanied by his odd companions, he wreaks havoc among the literary and dramatic denizens of the Russian capital with his forceful personality and bullying ways. He turns out to be a magician of tremendous power.

The arbitrary use of power and the suffering of ordinary people are recurrent themes in this extraordinary novel. This may sound quite ordinary as a motif but the effect of Bulgakov’s prose is terrifying. The power relations are also somehow intrinsically connected to the story of Jesus Christ and his committal to die by Pontius Pilate. There is an eerie echo down the ages, of that act and the abuse of power it represents, that is manifest in the professor and his cronies: a strange, thin man and a large, black cat that walks on its hind legs.

Both these familiars are active in exercising the professor’s power, and they appear as if out of thin air, summoned by fate.

At one point a character calls the professor the devil, but he more accurately represents fate, the power of destiny. This power, which exacts its revenge on the unsuspecting, seems to be characterised in this novel. Odd scenes, which are somehow just a little bit wrong, occur again and again. Why they are wrong is not initially evident, but the feeling persists.

Why does the master commit himself to an insane asylum, for example. Why does he deteriorate following the unsuccess of his novel about Pontius Pilate? What is the connection between this novel and the story the professor tells at the beginning of the book?

As the questions accumulate, we work hard to make sense of the fiction, to orient ourselves within the expanding series of strange situations in which feelings of powerlessness emerge on the streets and in the houses of Moscow. And there is a vacuum at the centre of the book that sucks in any meaning, a black hole of pure power, pure fate, that fills us with fear.

Along with the fear, however, we derive a sense of confidence from reading this book. Confidence that we can overcome any obstacle in the real world outside of the fiction. It has something to do with the complete disarray of the plot and an accompanying sensation that there is a guiding hand behind it. A strong secularist spirit saturates the narrative, giving us confidence to face our own fears; like waking up from a nightmare and, realising that although it is not the weekend, we can actually get up out of bed and get on with the day.

This book is a stunning accomplishment achieved in the face of official neglect. Imagine reading a cross between Milton’s Paradise Lost with Wings of Desire with a little Marquez added for zest. The magic never stops. Literally. And figuratively.

Bulgakov’s grasp of his material is mesmerising, his reach astronomical, his compassion unmatched by any author, living or dead. This is a book for the centuries.

As to why Alexander Morozov went berserk in the Bulgakov museum, well, I can only say that this book is designed to affect the nerves. Depending on how literally you read your ecclesiastical history, it could be pretty insulting. For rational beings, however, it is a symphony of compassionate reason. A milestone on the path to enlightenment.

Rest assured that I will be reading more works by this supremely talented writer.


Anonymous said...
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briconcella said...

I agree. This book rocked me at age 18 and still does thirty years later...