First Lines: The Master & Margarita

With Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master & Margarita I waded my first, cautionary steps into the pool of Russian literature.

The novel is set in 1920’s Soviet Russia, where three story lines interweave: the one where Satan’s minions wreck havoc in Moscow, the one set in Jerusalem where Pontius Pilate condemns a tree-hugging hippie philosopher to death, and the one of the titular characters.

The first story left me slightly bewildered. There are a slew of characters, all with three names, of which either the first two or the last one are interchangeably used. A man loses his head after meeting the devil, his companion goes mad, a theater show ends in chaos and people disappear. Later, it interweaves with the third thread, and it becomes more surreal, with its flying on broomsticks, witches and Satan’s midnight ball.

The second story, an alternative interpretation of the crucifixion of Jesus, I found the most interesting one. Contrary to the Moscow scenes, nothing supernatural happens here. There’s just the human beings Pilate and Yeshua Ha-Notsri, and a web of deceit and intrigue.

Until about halfway through, I wasn’t sure what to make of this book. The first part, apart from the one chapter on Pilate — which didn’t yet make sense in the grand scheme of things — was a bit of drag. But then the titular master showed up. He wrote a novel about Pilate, that got rejected by The System, which caused him to turn away from society and his lover, Margarita. When she gets pulled into Satan’s machinations, the pace seemed to quicken, and things got weirder and quite enjoyable. Special mention should go to the scene where she destroys an innocent baby grand piano, which left her exhausted:

Quite Steinmanesque, if you ask me. The allegorical elements in the last few chapters suited me more than the supposed satire of the earlier chapters. And while a closer and more careful reading of the text might have revealed more layers and symbols and meaning, but as I’ve said before, that’s for other people. I enjoyed the story, and that’s good enough for me.

Now, having finished The Master & Margarita, the only books on my 40 Books Before 40-list left at my immediate disposal are in the “Oh my, these tomes are slightly daunting” category. The Count of Monte Christo clocks in at well over a thousand pages, Don Quixote is no slouch either, and neither The Odyssey nor Moby Dick are known for being light reading. But as I knew what I was getting into, I’ll just plunge into one of them after I’ve finished my current book.

Book read
Mikhail Bulgakov — The Master & Margarita (translated from the Russian by Michael Glenny)
First line
At the sunset hour of one warm spring day two men were to be seen at Patriach’s Ponds.