Nashville Great Books Discussion Group

A reader's group devoted to the discussion of meaningful books.

Tuesday, August 22, 2006

Mikhail Bulgakov: The Master and Margarita, Pt. 1

Suppose the Devil (the real Satan) suddenly showed up in your home town. Suppose he made himself known to you and you became aware of the sinister threat he posed to your community. What would you do? Report it to the authorities? That’s what happens in Mikhail Bulgakov’s novel The Master and Margarita, and the result is a world not totally absurd, but it’s not quite right either. It’s a world where dream sequences are hardly distinguishable from what goes on in the “real” world.

Bulgakov may present problems for some American readers. First of all, the introduction of “the Devil” into a work of modern fiction automatically classifies it as fantasy or a genre not meant to be taken seriously. Bulgakov recognizes the inherent assumption by most modern sophisticated readers that “the Devil” (or any supernatural being) most emphatically DOES NOT exist. That’s exactly what the characters in the novel believe. Bulgakov also recognizes that anyone living in the modern world claiming to have seen and talked to the Devil would most likely be placed under psychiatric observation (since everyone knows that supernatural beings DO NOT exist). And that’s exactly what happens to some of the characters in the novel. Finally, Bulgakov recognizes that even if the Devil did exist, he might not necessarily be the spooky terror as portrayed in a movie like The Exorcist. He may, indeed, act somewhat like a goofball - sinister, perhaps, and lethal if crossed, but mostly rather banal. That also happens in the novel.

Another problem is that most Americans have trouble with Russian names. For one thing the names are not only foreign sounding, they’re long too. It seems that in Russia a character can be called by a first name, a last name, or a nickname – sometimes all on the same page. This makes it confusing for English-speaking readers. It would be the same as if a Russian with poor English skills was reading an English novel and the characters were named John Smith, John Smithson, Jan Johnson, and John Jansen. The reader may have to stop more than once and try to remember: now who was this guy again? It might not be a bad idea to get a small sheet of paper and write down the characters in the novel, just the way you have the characters listed at the start of a Shakespeare play.

Aside from these minor difficulties, however, the novel should appeal to a broad array of readers. Those who like adventure get a gruesome beheading by the third chapter, and the adventures keep right on coming after that. Those who like political backdrops notice the effect of government policy on the arts (the book was banned in the Soviet Union). Those who like dark humor find the story funny in a very offbeat kind of way. And those who like Russian literature find Bulgakov in the same unmistakable literary tradition as Dostoevsky and Chekhov.

Although the novel is written mostly in a style of magical realism, two of the chapters in Part One have nothing magical about them. They concern the trial and crucifixion of Jesus and are written in a very straightforward realistic style. The reader can almost feel the pounding headache of Pontius Pilate, the oppressive heat and dust on the way to Golgotha, and the brutish demeanor of the Roman soldiers. All of this is in stark contrast to the hard-drinking, late-night carousing, money-grubbing urban dwellers of Moscow. The reader is left to grapple with the stark question: what would I have done if confronted by the Devil in Moscow? Fortunately, we don’t have to give a straight answer. We’re able to close the book whenever we want and say: “It’s only a story. It’s not real.” The Devil DOES NOT exist. And thank goodness I don’t live in Moscow.

-- RDP


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