Monday, June 17, 2013

The Master and Margarita (Mikhail Bulgakov)

The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov
Read: 31 August to 14 September 2012
4 / 5 stars

The Devil went down to Georgia
He was lookin’ for a soul to steal --

Er, no. Different story. Sorry. The Prince of Darkness in this tale is not an egomaniacal fiddler but a ringleader whose retinue (and, let’s be honest here, good ol’ garden-variety greed, pride and other stone-inscribed sins peculiar to human beans) wreak havoc on an unsuspecting Muscovite population one hot spring. The ensuing chaos and its key players had me wondering how Bulgakov was yet another writer (like Milton before him and Duncan many years later) who made His Dark Majesty less hateful to me than, say, the gargantuan manchild stumbling through Confederacy of Dunces.

I had to build a bookshelf to remove this novel from my line of sight so I’d not be tempted to dig into it before my first group-read adventure kicked off. After doing a little bit of background research to stave off the mounting excitement, I finally dug into the first few chapters of TM&M and... uh, was less than immediately smitten. I started wondering what I’d gotten myself into: What in the sweet hell is going on with these names? Why a cat? And what, exactly, does Pontius Pilate have to do with Russia in the 1930s, anyway? Thankfully, my (sometimes awkwardly worded) translation had a commentary at the end to demystify some of the more obscure and alien references that would have eluded me otherwise, which absolutely helped me get through the initial lukewarm feelings I had for this book while offering up some of the richest symbolism I've ever had the delight to roll around in.

Once I gave myself over to the bountiful allusions, veiled jabs at outdated and oppressive institutions, dark and downright vaudevillian humor, and surprising warmth (and not always of the hellfire variety) weaving through the story, I started looking for any excuse to return to this book. Once the titular characters arrived nearly halfway through the novel, I had as much success resisting this book as one does fighting the inevitable future, as their tale combined with the thoroughly modern concerns and warnings within TM&M positively dazzled me.

As much as I deeply enjoyed The Master and Margarita’s story and eventual reunion, it was the push-and-pull of duality -- and, ultimately the realization that one polar extreme can neither exist nor possess meaning without an exact opposite -- that charmed me the most, especially in the religious sense. Any sense of spirituality I’ve ever had has been mutable for years (I do believe in a higher power of some sort but lack the pride and presumption to assume that I'm right and everyone else is damned, which is one of the reasons I align myself with the Gnostic way of thought more than anything else) so what springs to mind when I'm confronted with the Judeo-Christian "God" ideal is not a fag-hating, insecure Old Testament bully who's got armfuls of lightning bolts at the ready for prompt smiting in hypocritical negation of the free will with which He Himself has blessed His earthly children: The God (-ish figure) I choose to accept has bigger problems than picking sides in American political affairs. He has, like, the rest of the universe that isn't a country in its infancy to worry about. I also embrace a hands-off perception of God, an all-knowing and relatively benign entity who rarely interferes with our dealings because He sees the bigger picture and how each thread has its place in the greater tapestry of human existence.

Similarly, I believe that whatever counterforce exists has about as much immediate effect on all of us meat puppets shuffling around the mortal coil and relies on basic human failings to influence an individual's hellward saunter, which was embodied beautifully here. The lone magic show that Woland performed was rendered scandalous simply because he placed temptation within his audience's grasp and let them do what came naturally to them -- that is, acting out on the greedy desire for better things and free money (because that's all that matters, right?) fueling their belief that they deserved the opportunity to get something more for the price of admission. Woland's motives aside, his part in reuniting the tortured Master and his beloved Margarita only reinforced my belief that he's equally as just as his heavenly equivalent -- c'mon, the guy let Margarita ask for a second favor after her selfless first demand. Does that sound at all like modern Christianity's cloven-hooved demon?

As for Lady M.... the Devil's Ball was clearly not the best of times for her but she kept her eyes on the prize because she could imagine no greater suffering than life without her beloved Master. The redemptive power of love was an unexpected undercurrent rushing through the latter half of this book, as was the message that it is an unpardonable sin to let one's nigh unequaled skills as a writer fester as self-doubt and defeat consume the human vessel in which these conflicting forces reside. The Master earning peace without light hit me like a speeding trolley: Love may be the greatest salvation of all but denying one's place in the world as dictated by immense talent is a special kind of damnation.

The narrative leaves the Russian matters behind as select locations are set ablaze, echoing the promise of God above to never again annihilate life with a flood; as such, the Devil below ensures that the story (and, for some, their world) ends in flame. Fire in Moscow: Run, boys, run.

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