Posted on | September 12, 2010 | 21 Comments
It’s taken me a little over a month to finish this book, and I must say, it’s probably one of my greatest reading accomplishments ’til date. I found the first eighty-four pages tremendously trying, the next one-hundred-and-fifty odd pages amazing, and I was actually totally hooked to the ‘Book 2′ of this intimidating classic.
At the very outset, I am compelled to admit I don’t think I understood the whole book. Large portions of it had me baffled, and I questioned my resolve to continue reading it more than once. At the end of the day, though, I am glad that I read it, for a multitude of reasons which I’ll explain further down. In fact, the book is already begging for a re-read, just because I think I, as the reader, will benefit greatly from the re-read.
Set in the 1930s Moscow, where Stalin was the head of state, the basic premise of this book is that the devil (Satan) strolls into Moscow with his entourage to wreak havoc. In case you’re wondering, Stalin and Satan aren’t interchangeable here, despite this book being a political satire.
In the opening chapter, two members of MASSOLIT (a literary organisation in Moscow) are debating on the existence of god by the Patriarch’s Ponds. A foreigner introduces himself to them, apologises for the intrusion but justifies it by saying that the subject of your learned conversation is so interesting that…
The foreigner who goes by the name of Woland is the devil, and he predicts the impending unexpected death of Berlioz, one of the writers. His theory was that Jesus did exist, a theory that the two writers refuted. Berlioz’s tragic death is only the first of a series of unexpected events that hit Moscow. There’s a seance where money rains down, and the women of the city end up walking the streets in nothing but their undergarments, people get teleported to Yalta, the phone lines break, and devil knows, something bizarre is going on…
So, where do “the Master” and “Margarita” fit in? It’s a good question, and it takes a while for that to be addressed, as the first part of this book essentially deals with the chaos and confusion created by Woland and his gang, which includes the unforgettable talking cat in the bow-tie, Behemoth. The first book also goes back in time, and has a semi-fictional account of Pontius Pilate, and the role he played in Jesus’ persecution followed by the crucifixion itself.
It’s Book Two that revolves around the titular characters. Margarita is the grieving wife of an unsuccessful author, “the master,” who has disappeared into the oblivion and she has no idea as to where he is; is he dead or alive. In reality, he’s gone over the edge, and is in a psychiatric institution. Now, Satan needs a woman called Margarita to host a midnight ball, where the catch is, the woman has to be native to the city. There are a hundred-and-twenty-one potential hostesses but the master’s Margarita is the chosen one. She builds up a rapport with the devil himself, becomes a witch, in return for something…
It’s the entire exchange between the devil and Margarita that had me wondering about the first half of the book, where the devil was shown to be an entity toying with the lives of people, without reason. The second half of the book did, in a manner of speaking, highlight the kind of people the devil was victimising in the first half. It was the greedy and the selfish, the people who were successful due to their vices, not their virtues, the people who we’d call weasels, the bureaucrats and the opportunists. People, who in my humble opinion, deserve to be reprimanded, deserve to be punished. Even today, the weasels seem to be the ones who are successful and go far in their lives, whereas the hardworking ones seem to be stuck in a rut, and I think that’s unfair… excuse the slight aside, but when realisation hit me towards the end of the book, I was sympathising with the devil himself!
And yes, the lyrics of the Stones’ Sympathy for the Devil did come back to me at that point. I love the Stones, I love Mick Jagger and Keith Richards and Brian Jones and… Have you ever heard the lyrics? I did look up the song on Wikipedia once I’d finished this book, and it didn’t really surprise me that part of it had been inspired by this work of fiction!
Please allow me to introduce myself
I’m a man of wealth and taste
I’ve been around for a long, long year
Stole many a man’s soul and faith
And I was ’round when Jesus Christ
Had his moment of doubt and pain
Made damn sure that Pilate
Washed his hands and sealed his fate
Pleased to meet you
Hope you guess my name
But what’s puzzling you
Is the nature of my game
So, yes, this is a satirical confusing bizarre story, where too many characters are introduced, and too many of them have too short a role to play. I found myself questioning the introduction of some of these characters, considering their short life in the novel, and couldn’t really come up with an answer. It’s humorous in bits, and thought-provoking in chunks. The characters are mesmerising and some of the scenes incredible.
And an unheard-of thing occurred. The fur bristled on the cat’s back, and he gave a rending miaow. Then he compressed himself into a ball and shot like a panther straight at Bengalsky’s chest, and from there on to his head. Growling, the cat sank his plump paws into the skimpy chevelure of the master of ceremonies and in two twists tore the head from the thick neck with a savage howl.
The banter is hilarious, and it does provide some relief from the otherwise confusing bewildering narrative.
‘Well, what’s all this now?’ exclaimed Woland. `Why have you gilded your whiskers? And what the devil do you need the bow-tie for, when you’re not even wearing trousers?’
‘A cat is not supposed to wear trousers, Messire,’ the cat replied with great dignity. ‘You’re not going to tell me to wear boots, too, are you? Puss-in-Boots exists only in fairy tales, Messire. But have you ever seen anyone at a ball without a bow-tie? I do not intend to put myself in a ridiculous situation and risk being chucked out! Everyone adorns himself with what he can. You may consider what I’ve said as referring to the opera glasses as well, Messire!’
‘But the whiskers? …’
‘I don’t understand,’ the cat retorted drily. ‘Why could Azazello and Koroviev put white powder on themselves as they were shaving today, and how is that better than gold? I powdered my whiskers, that’s all! If I’d shaved myself, it would be a different matter! A shaved cat – now, that is indeed an outrage, I’m prepared to admit it a thousand times over. But generally,’ here the cat’s voice quavered touchily, ‘I see I am being made the object of a certain captiousness, and I see that a serious problem stands before me – am I to attend the ball? What have you to say about that, Messire?’
Have you read this book? Or attempted to read it? What did you think? Worth a read? I’d recommend it…
What’s the most confusing bizarre book that you’ve read? I think this is mine, hands down, beating Murakami’s Kafka on the Shore…