Basically nothing about The Master and Margarita is as you would have expected, which is pretty much about what I expected. A modern Russian novel that couldn’t be published during the author’s lifetime due to its controversial message, the book alternates between being hilarious and moving, fantastical and all too realistic.
The plot, in a nutshell: The devil arrives in Soviet-era Moscow, bearing the name of Woland and accompanied by an entourage of demons and a naked witch, and he proceeds to spread chaos, confusion and mild destruction all over the city. The Muscovites, who don’t really do the whole religion thing, consider him to be basically an unethical sleight-of-hand artist. They flock to his “black magic expose” and are delighted when money flies down from the ceiling, horrified when all of their womenfolk end up running au naturel down the street, and a bit disgruntled that this “foreign artiste” never gets around to the actual expose part of the show and never bothers to explain how he managed to rip off the M.C.’s head without actually killing the man. (The M.C. was probably the most disgruntled one in the theater.) But it turns out that Woland isn’t all bad. Okay, sure, he never gets around to the expose, all of the money turns into either foreign currency (bad) or scraps of paper (worse), and one of his minions has an alarming encounter with the police and, later, a salmon… but at least three people end up pleased that the devil is in town. One is probably Dr. Stravinsky, the head of the insane asylum that ends up doing outstanding business treating half of Moscow. One is the Master, a residential patient in the asylum who was driven insane by slanderous newspaper critiques of his unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate. And the last is Margarita, the Master’s married mistress, who loves the Master passionately and believes wholeheartedly in his genius, and who makes a Faustian deal with Woland to rescue the Master from his emotional torment.
Like many Russian novels, there is a vast and diverse cast of characters, many of whom wander in and out of the action and remain on the periphery yet still influence the main plot. The primary cast includes, of course, Woland, his retinue – Azzazello the fallen angel, Korovyov the former choirmaster, Behemoth the giant talking cat (one of the best characters in the book), Hella the nude witch, and of course, the Master and Margarita. Of these characters, Margarita is by far the best developed and the most sympathetic – you can really feel her pain and loneliness, her desperation to be reunited with the Master, and her joy to see him again. The chapter in which she makes the choice to trust Woland is incredibly finely crafted. Her glee and destructiveness upon becoming a witch and her flight over Moscow was one of my favorite parts of the book.
Woland was a fascinating character as well – certainly not the Satan you think you know. He was more complex than the Satan that you hear about in church; more than the personification of evil, I would say he was the personification of shadow. And of course, as he explains, what is light without shadow? Woland thus is a necessary counterpoint to Christ, or Yeshua as he is referred to in the Master’s opus – and Woland is not all bad. He’s a bit sinister, yes, and he certainly has a wicked sense of humor. If he was pure evil, if he was the traditional Satan, he would be far less interesting, amusing, or dare I say, sympathetic, than he in fact is.
Meanwhile, as the main story of Woland, the Master, and Margarita unfolds in twentieth-century Moscow, there is a parallel story of the events in Yershalaim (Jerusalem), with parallel themes, running as we are occasionally treated to what could be excerpts from the Master’s book, could be Woland’s own recollection, or could be both. The parallel story is the story of Christ’s execution told, not necessarily from Pontius Pilate’s perspective, but certainly with Pilate as the central character. Yeshua is not the traditional Jesus, nor is Pilate the traditional Pilate (either the reluctant executioner of the Christian tradition or the brutal governor that history tells us he actually was). Pilate is a conflicted man who does wish that he could save Yeshua from his fate, but knows that he can’t – and who exacts his own indirect, secret revenge against Yeshua’s betrayer.
The Moscow chapters were both moving and funny, at different times; the Yershalaim chapters were simply moving and very powerful. When I finished the book, I was satisfied with the ending and had plenty of material for thought and reflection. What more could you possibly ask for? An amazing reading experience.