Thursday, May 28, 2009

Sympathy for the Devil

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

“Who told you there was no such thing as real, true, eternal love? Cut out his lying tongue!”

On a bench in Patriarchs’ Pond Park, two literary types discussing the Christian religion are accosted by a mocking figure. The boorish editor, Berlioz (an incidental figure, and the uncoincidental namesake of the composer of La damnation de Faust) has his death prophesized by the stranger, a prophecy which wastes no time in being realized due to the demonically inevitable conjunction of sunflower oil, a turnstile, and an all-too-punctual streetcar. Thus, another latter-day John the Baptist is beheaded.

With this prologue, The Master and Margarita begins a dual narrative which commences in the midst of Holy Week and reaches its culmination on Easter Sunday. The primary narrative (1920s Moscow) is satiric and brutally funny, while the story within the story, the Master’s retelling of Christ’s Trial and Passion is serious and delicately written. As the primary story unfolds, the identity of the stranger and his retinue (which includes a harlequin figure and a huge black tomcat with a gourmand’s appetite) becomes increasingly apparent, an identity which would be unmistakable even without the various hat-tips to the Faust legend. For the “magician” Woland, time and reality are pliable, lending a surreal quality to the story that is both hilarious and disconcerting (see the - literally - empty suit diligently catching up on its paperwork). The tendency of the narrative is more along the lines of a trickster cycle than a morality play, although the Pontius Pilate storyline is a study in existential dilemma worthy of Dostoyevsky or Kafka.

The prohibitions and paranoia of Soviet Russia (“Never Speak to Strangers” is one chapter title) are slyly satirized to the degree that Bulgakov’s novel was suppressed for decades before its first publication in 1966/67. The paranoia, the empty suits, the xenophobia, and the use of the asylum as a means of control are some of Bulgakov’s touchstones, yet even in Stalinist Russia, he managed to tell a tale of love and final redemption, courtesy of that scapegoat of humanity who is “Part of that Power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good.”