Mikhail Bulgakov,
The Master & Margarita
(1967; Penguin, 2001)

It might just drop people's jaws and it might drop people's drawers, but when Satan and his retinue of a naked witch, a monocled prankster and a giant talking cat named Behemoth (literally translated as Hippopotamus) fall upon Moscow, the entire town is flipped up on its downside. With characters suddenly waking up in Yalta and rubles turning into mineral water labels, Moscow is forced to rationalize these bizarre happenings that can barely be comprehended by its people. Mikhail Bulgakov, with his witty cat and not-so-evil Satan, shows that Christian or atheist, existentialist or determinist, everybody's blind if they treat theory like dogma.

In his novel The Master & Margarita, Bulgakov managed to offend both the Orthodox Church and the Soviet government. The novel is an absolute joy and I, a slow reader, read it in about two days despite its moderate girth. You really can't put it down. The novel is layered with cutaways as the main character, the Master, tells his story of Pontius Pilate, and the devil reminisces over the tale with mediocre poets in front of Patriarch's Pond. It's full of wisecracking jokes and humor from Satan's cat, who normally carries a potbelly stove, and his gangly, prankster pal, supplied with ill-fitting pants and a cracked monocle.

The novel also has much deeper philosophical and political meaning as it questions the doctrine of atheism as just another religious dogma. Then it humorously lambastes the Soviet government's censorship and politicizing of poetry as the heroine, Margarita, destroys the home of Moscow's poet laureate. Also it is filled with what everyone loves: whacks at Soviet police, undermining of authority and most especially hilarious highlights of hypocrisy.

This novel was completed in the mid-1930s but was first released (in censored form) in 1967; it was created with all the fervor of an author who knew it would never be published. Nothing is held back. The entire novel jumps to life and is filled with such descriptive imagery you can't remember looking at words because all you see are the scenes. At times the novel seems a bit campy, especially when Bulgakov speaks to his audience, but this is rare and is probably the product of Russian folklore. I would recommend this book (now available uncensored) as a humorous read or philosophical one. I would recommend it as both. If anyone is looking for sharp attacks and clever witticisms, then The Master & Margarita is the place to find it.

- Rambles
written by Danny Schwartz
published 28 February 2004

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