Russian literature gets a bad rap for being dry, thick, and dull, when the reality is much of the most respected Russian literature is filled with fantastic flights of fancy, and outrageous absurdities. Take, for example, a small scene in Anna Karenina where all of a sudden we get narration from the point of view of Levin’s hunting dog. This scene seems so natural it’s easy to forget we’re getting the inner-monologue of a dog. Gogol, who Bulgakov is most similar too, was famous for his absurdities: his story The Nose is about a man’s nose that leads a life of its own. And even that most serious of authors, Dostoevsky, wrote his best works about the struggles of man against the powers of the supernatural. And while many good people would scoff at the idea of religion being lumped into the same category as mere “fantasy”, the idea of a naked witch riding a man turned into a pig over a sleeping Moscow is not that much harder to believe than an angel falling from heaven and corrupting all of mankind.
But what is this book about? Yes, the plot is easy enough: The Devil comes to Moscow, causes all sorts of trouble, then leaves, but that’s not what the book is “about”. For me, this novel was about a search for truth.
Famously, Communism biggest flaw was that after awhile everyone under it grew apathetic, nobody bothered to fix or change anything because it couldn’t be fixed or changed; there was no point looking for the broken pieces because it would just cause a lot of trouble. But couldn’t the same thing be said of religion? How do we know that the story of Jesus and Pontius Pilate happened as it says in the New Testament? Bulgakov makes a good case for his version of events being much more realistic than what’s in the Christian Bible. Yet the story we have in the Gospels talks about a man who while being crucified suffered so that man could be forgiven for all their sins and on the third day after his burial he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven. Millions of people take that for an absolute, unarguable fact.
But how do stories really get told? Aren’t the best stories really just exaggerations built upon more exaggerations? Couldn’t the story of Homer in The Odyssey have started out as a true tale of a man lost at sea for awhile who managed to return home (an exciting enough story as it is), but then have been built upon by countless storytellers who turned it into the epic poem we now know? And maybe that’s why in this novel The Master is belittled by the editors – not just because he’s written the true (and less supernatural) version of events concerning Pontius Pilate and Jesus – but because he’s dared to use his imagination at all in communist Russia. After all, Russia at the time was a state built on scientific reason, absolute logic, and pure atheism; Russia was building a new world order but was failing miserable, as Voland quickly discovers and as Bulgakov so humorously explores.
One of the greatest feats the novel pulls off is creating Pontius Pilate as a sympathetic, complex character. He’s not made out to be the good guy, but neither is he all evil, either. And by the end of the novel we understand the real meaning of what Jesus (Yeshua here) preached when he said all men are good (something Pilate completely disagreed with). Salvation awaits for even the most troubled of people and is where, I believe, Bulgakov was being optimistic about what would happen one day in Russia – that communism would fail (which it did 60 years later).
However, all this would be just dry academic babbling if the book itself weren’t any good, and oh, boy is this book wonderful. Ranging from moments of pure insanity – a cat with a gun – to moments of beautiful tenderness such as the fate of Judas and the moonbeams, this novel covers so much ground that it’s nearly impossible to pin down and say with any certainty what it’s really all “about”. What is is though is wonderful, funny, and touching. The Master and Margarita is one helluva story and there is nothing else quite like it.