The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

(read and reviewed in 2014)

‘Didn’t you know that manuscripts don’t burn?’

In Russia, profoundly in the grip of Stalin during the 1930s, the Devil visits two atheists. Add to the mix an assassin, a black cat, Jesus, Pontius Pilate and a naked witch and you have the main ingredients of one of the most amazing novels of the 20th century. Unfortunately, it’s challenging to try to write a coherent review of this novel: it’s a little like trying to fit together pieces of an abstract puzzle.

‘It can’t be! He doesn’t exist!’

There are three distinct elements: Professor Woland’s discussion with Berlioz and the poet known as Bezdomny about the existence of Jesus, the section involving the Master and his lover Margarita, and a novel about Pontius Pilate. The link between this elements? Well, the Devil (in the guise of Professor Woland) challenges Berlioz and Bezdomny’s concepts of atheism, which leads the conversation to the novel about Pilate which was written by the Master.

‘Intelligent people, however, become intelligent by solving complicated problems.’

Simple, right? Only because Mikhail Bulgakov was such an accomplished writer. Action then shifts between Jerusalem, where Pilate wants to free Jesus but has no choice, and Moscow where Berlioz dies, and Bezdomny (whose real name is Ivan) is taken to an asylum. Ivan’s neighbour in the asylum is another writer, known only as the Master. As we shift between Jerusalem and Moscow, the stories start to converge. And when Woland hosts a grand ball with Margarita as his hostess and then grants her a wish, the Master and Margarita are eventually reunited.

No, these words do not do this wonderfully complex, multi-layered story justice. It’s inventive and satirical, it’s brilliant on so many different levels. The book was written between 1928 and 1940, but was not published until 1967. I really don’t understand why it took me until 2014 to read it for the first time.

‘But what happened in Moscow after sunset on that Saturday evening when Woland and his followers left the capital and vanished from Sparrow Hills?’

Jennifer Cameron-Smith