Retellings: Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita

Sam Fitzgerald 28 October 2019

Over the summer, I read Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita upon my mother’s recommendation.

In a beautifully disorienting surrealist style, the novel tells the story of the Devil’s arrival in 1930s Moscow and the havoc he and his retinue wreak in the city’s literary and theatrical circles. With running themes of belief in the absurd in an atheist society, the easy categorisation of such belief as insanity, and the need for spiritual closure and freedom, this novel could have been a springboard for any number of articles (and probably has). I, however, was struck first by the theme of truth.

A major part of the book hinges on an unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate, which we are led to believe is in fact the true account of Jesus’ trial and execution. Extended extracts of this novel run parallel to the main narrative, with the ‘inner’ novel gaining an unexpected relevance as the main series of events unfolds. The tracts of this parallel setting come at times from the unpublished ‘inner’ novel and its author, the ‘Master,’ and at times from the Devil himself within the main narrative.

“Indeed, we are given Satan’s assurance that, while Jesus definitely existed and was killed under the orders of Pilate and the Sanhedrin, the four Gospel accounts are all completely false and it is the Master’s version which reflects what really happened…”

In view of this declaration, Bulgakov’s secondary narrative made for interesting reading, with numerous clever references to elements of the Gospels as well as several major points of difference. For instance, Yeshua ha-Nozri is irritated by the inaccurate scribblings of a certain one of his followers, Levi Matthew, claiming his words are being misrepresented. There are also more inane discrepancies resulting from the perspective of Bulgakov’s retelling; nowhere in the Gospels do we hear of Pilate having a splitting headache, or of his faithful dog Banga.

Indeed, when compared with Bulgakov’s retelling of the story from Pilate’s perspective, the Gospels are all remarkably unified in their distinction. And yet when compared with each other, it is easy to spot differences in timeline, focus and even the main antagonists. These discrepancies are the result of the Evangelists’ different sources, audiences and time of writing. Given that these differing accounts are held by Christians to all be true in their own way and to contribute equally to our perception of the Truth (that is, the message of Jesus), we must ask; how different does something need to be from the Gospel Truth before it ceases to be entirely true, and is instead a ‘retelling’? While C.S. Lewis’ The Chronicles of Narnia and other such works of fiction represent the story of Jesus as no more than a ‘retelling,’ this does not detract from their merit as stories. Moreover, they arguably gain literary value by retelling what is the central Truth for Christians all over the world, just as countless paintings and sculptures are enriched by the Truth their creator was trying to convey. The same is perhaps the case for other important events and their stories.

Where can we draw the line between any retelling and the truth behind it?

Synoptic view of the Gospels. Image Credit: Bible Research Today

In life, we are constantly reshaping and reconstructing events in our memories so that they make sense to ourselves and to others. For instance, if two people had a conversation, and then a week later each wrote an account of that conversation, those accounts would in all likelihood look quite different. They would focus on different parts of the conversation. They might describe the setting in different ways. One or both of them might misremember the order in which an argument was made. Does that make them simply ‘retellings,’ not deserving of the label ‘true’? Or if our two conversationalist’s accounts were too similar, might we even accuse them of being doctored? Most importantly, it would be a bold move indeed to use the differing accounts as evidence that no conversation ever happened in the first place. Rather, we might read the two in parallel in an attempt to perceive the truth.

Retellings, then, can still be useful.

The Master and Margarita is a witty work of fiction, yet it contains within its retellings a reflection of some truth. If that truth is ignored, the novel loses something. In today’s “post-truth” world, where scepticism is encouraged wherever we look, it is perhaps worth remembering that truth is not always exclusive. It does not belong to any one side of a dispute, and nor has it been lost forever with only fake news and twisted facts in its place. The unparalleled ease with which we can now access different opinions and perspectives on the truth online can be a blessing as well as a curse; while some of the things reported in the media at the moment are indeed simply false, others can still be useful.

If we are genuinely interested in the truth, we ought to see the value in the rich variety of tellings and retellings with which we are presented. Things we cast aside straight away for their absurdity might in fact be masking a real truth, even if that truth is harder to find than it ought to be. Maybe we should get into the habit of seeing such news pieces as retellings, and asking the question:

‘what truth is this a retelling of?’

Sam Fitzgerald is a third year Theology student at Selwyn college.

What do you think? Let us know at editor@tcs.cam.ac.uk with the subject line ‘Letter to the Editor’!