Book Review: The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov

Alex Wolfers 29 October 2009

Writing in Stalinist Russia during a period of severe artistic censorship, by 1930, Bulgakov had burnt the first draft of this novel. Restarting a few years later and continuing work on it until his death in 1940, its eventual publication in 1966 was a slap in the face of the repressive Soviet authority.

Set in his contemporary Moscow, Bulgakov presents a suitably cold stage on which little men with petty motivations enact a spiritless existence. A forerunner of magical realism and told in a characteristically clear Russian style, the novel documents a visit by the devil disguised as Woland, a “foreign” professor of the dark arts. His retinue includes a scantily clad maid, “perfect, were it not for a purple scar on her neck”, a “painfully dressed” baritone, the brutish Azazello, complete with fang and wall-eye, and Behemoth, a fast talking, hog-sized black cat with an irrepressible compulsion for mischief. Their theatrics range from basic acts of thuggery and arson, to the theft of people’s heads and inducing uncontrollable outbursts of hymn-song.

Woland’s carnival-esque antics instigate glorious chaos amongst the herds of stodgy bourgeois and stifling bureaucratniks, exposing their trivial vanities and greed. Judgement is passed and only few remain unscathed. Amongst these are the “Master”, a truth-seeking writer introduced from within a madhouse, and his lover Margarita, empowered in her transformation from suicidal housewife to a boldly disrobed witch.

This novel, strewn with deliciously lyrical passages such as Margarita’s naked broomstick-flight over the streets of Moscow, is a battle cry against censorship and the repression of the human spirit. Woland’s judgement robs society of its bland notions of comfort and order, and calls for a rebellion, both artistic and spiritual.

Bulgakov’s genius lies in his harmonious combination of acerbic socio-political satire, surreal imaginations and bawdy slapstick, woven together with dreamlike flourishes. This unique work is an undeservedly obscure classic.

Alex Wolfers