The Master and Margarita – Mikhail Bulgakov (Book Review)


A few people have claimed this book as their favourite from the 20th century, such as Daniel Radcliffe and Steven Fry, which is quite the claim considering the books I have read from then. I thought it worth a go, being a Russian author and all…

In the 1930’s, Satan, under the guise of a magician, walks the streets of Moscow with his three pals: Azzezelo, Koroviev, and Behemoth – the talking cat. Observing the Russian people, and causing a lot of trouble for the aristocracy, the Devil and his friends settle into Flat 50.

Meanwhile, an author of a book about the life of Pontius Pilate, calling himself the Master, is in a mental asylum, longing for his married mistress, Margarita; who herself longs to leave her husband she regards as boring, for the author of what she considers a masterpiece.

And throughout this is the story of Pontius Pilate on the days surrounding the crucifixion, his dealings with Jesus (Yeshua), Judas, Matthew, and his mysterious head bodyguard. All the while detesting the city of Jerusalem, and seeking the sleep which evades him.

At first I was hesitant to read the book, having heard that a fictitious version of Jesus appeared in it who, for the most part, acts a bit bewildered as to the claims against him – frankly, he’s portrayed as a simpleton – albeit still the Christ. This, with me being a Christian and the book being potentially offensive to the faith, made me cautious. There are few reasons why this may not be so though, which I address first for the sake of others in my position:

Firstly, the stories told are from the point of view of the Master, and Satan himself (who even in the novel is hardly a reliable source of truth), and are therefore fictitious even in the fiction.

Secondly, Jesus is still revealed as telling the Truth, as he is shown eternal throughout.

And thirdly, the book has strong themes of repentance throughout, which I may touch on later.

That aside: the book was fairly good. I wouldn’t go as far as saying one of my favourites, but nonetheless recommendable. The characters are certainly unique (if not bizarre), and there were some genuinely funny moments throughout.

The descriptive prose is well done, and much of it graphic to the point of breaking through even my 21st century sensitised reactions – the descriptions of Pilates torment due to lack of sleep made me incredibly thankful that I could sleep without trouble.

The stories are much more like fairy-tales than ordinary classical fiction, and are therefore somewhat bordering magical realism(?).

Now to be annoying; the drawbacks: firstly I felt that morality was often too simplified in the novel. Though there were some moments that felt real (which I won’t share due to spoilers) often the portrayal of good and evil were far too separated, unlike the usual mix in each man.

Secondly, the portrayal of the devil was quite cartoon-y, and the ‘antics’ him and his friends got up to seemed somewhat childish. Unless this novel is viewed as a somewhat jovial book – which it certainly has elements of – this could seem quite tedious. It was also hinted at that he is somewhat in charge of the souls of the damned, which is a particular misconception that I can’t help but allow to irk me.

Thirdly, the purpose of the book, should it have been a satire of communism in Russian, was somewhat hard to grasp and hold onto, though that may be perhaps due to ignorance on my part: was the devil, who caused so much trouble for the Russian citizens, a characterised Stalin? I’m not sure.

Overall, however, it wasn’t a bad read, and I’m open for someone to point out something I missed. I’m of the school of hermeneutics that assumes that the authors intent is the true meaning, so sources from Bulgakov that I’m unaware of, perhaps…

It does leave me thinking what I would publicly put forward as my favourite book of the 20th century, however. I’d be interested to hear some people’s thoughts.


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