The Master and Margarita

Almaty is certainly not Moscow, but it feels somehow appropriate (on several levels) to read The Master and Margarita in my finals days in Kazakhstan. The novel is by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov, and is a rich book that can be read as a philosophical work, a stinging satire of Soviet life, and an absurd novel about a romp with Satan through Moscow.

The book moves through two stories: a fictionalized tale of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Notsri; and Satan’s appearance in Moscow, bringing with him no lack of witches, demons, and chaos. Satan deftly reveals the greed and classism of Soviet life, providing a scathing review of social life and the Moscow bourgeois.

Most of the characters are complex, such as Woland (Satan) and his retinue, though many remain distant anomalies. This book demands to be read in a historical and literary context; the translation I read (thanks Anton!) by Pevear and Volokhonsky had helpful endnotes – I would have missed many references to Goethe’s Faust (they’re pervasive;  I haven’t read the clearly inspirational work), and nods to Bulgakov’s fine company of Russian literary masters (although I did catch the Anna Karenina reference). On a side note, everyone should read Anna Karenina. Now.

It’s clear that in many ways, the book speaks most directly to those familiar with Moscow, but the beautiful language does not leave even strangers to Moscow, like myself, wanting. Typical of most Russian novels I’ve read, it can be challenging to keep the characters straight at first, what with the long names and the nicknames being used back and forth without much explanation. It’s a gripping read, the 400 pages flew by. I don’t want to write more, I’d spoil the fun. Even hashing out the philosophical overtones has consequences for a novel such as this; it’s not like a treatise or discourse. In any case, I recommend the book, particularly for those who want to read some Russian literature without diving into the abyss of certain Tolstoy or Dostoevsky works.

Regarding the translation: The introduction is admittedly weak – I found more thorough and lucid information online. The endnotes are irritating, because they are not sparse, and flipping back and forth so frequently is disruptive (but I’ve always been adamantly opposed to using endnotes when footnotes are an option). Despite their unfortunate location, the notes are very interesting and useful, and help an ignorant reader like myself better appreciate the depth of the work. The translation itself seems solid and many subtleties of the author appear well presented, such a frequent allusions to and ironic exclamations about the Devil. Pevear and Volokhonsky are a married couple, one American and one Russian, so they seem to have an interesting edge in translating Russian to English.


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