Friday, June 6, 2014

Book Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov is the latest book selected for our Santiago Book Club. The Amazon blurb is quite brief: Set in Moscow of the 1920's, this satirical novel recounts the dealings a writer and his mistress have with Satan.

Read on for my full review.

Overall Impression
This was a pretty interesting and fantastical novel. It had a lot of crazy elements in it, yet still manages to tell a good story. The Russian character names are a bit confusing, but most of them are secondary except for the Devil and company. The plot goes back and forth between events in Moscow and the novel the master is writing (about Pontius Pilate and Jesus aka Ha-Nozri). While they do connect in the end, it still feels a bit forced. There are plenty of footnotes in my version and it was good to read them to get the backstory on some of the qualities of Russian life in the 1930s.

The story generally follows ordinary characters in Moscow as their lives intersect those of the Devil, his lackeys, or other people affected by them. All sorts of crazy things start happening, with people dying, undying, going insane, singing in a loop, flying naked, and such. It's very interesting to see how characters try to fight back and try to outsmart the Devil. Lots of great, fantastical stuff happens.

At the same time, there is a re-telling of the story of Jesus in the moments before and after the crucifixion. This is told either through memories (ie, the Devil's) or through a book. The symmetry behind this plot line and the main one is a bit disconnected, though. Only at the very end do we see the connections.

There are many characters in the story, though most of them have long, Russian names that are quickly forgotten. It's actually a bit hard to tell who is the main character as so much of the story is taken up by the Devil and his assistants. These come off as the bad guys, but are certainly having a lot of fun in Moscow. You have Professor Woland (the Devil himself), Behemoth, Koroviev, Azazello, and Hella. Each one individually is quite interesting and fully capable of completely messing up their intended targets with all manner of mischief.

Perhaps the main characters are intended to be the master and Margarita herself. However, these are introduced fairly late in the story; about halfway for the master and maybe 2/3 or 3/4 in for Margarita. As such, they feel far less developed and we, as readers, are less interested in their stories compared to what the Devil is up to.

Setting / World Building
The story is set in Russia around the 1930s. There are plenty of references to the local culture or way of life. In fact, there are footnotes that frequently clarify some aspect of this. Despite this, it feels less 'Russian' when I compare it to The Winds of Khalakovo by Bradley P. Beaulieu. I think, though, that it's because this book is more casual whereas The Winds of Khalakovo takes itself more seriously and relies too much on stereotypes to transform a fantasy setting into something like Russia.

The Master and Margarita features the Devil and his retinue of strange helpers. They have great powers and generally wreak havoc all over Moscow. I was reminded at times of the anime Mythical Detective Loki Ragnarok as it features a god (Loki) and his children (Fenrir, Hel, etc) in the real world getting into (and out of) trouble. Having the Devil running around with his 'unclean powers' makes The Master and Margarita feel more fantastical, which is always a plus in my book. I do feel like there may have been a few inconsistencies in the magic system, but it could also be that we never get a clear picture of exactly what the Devil and his lackeys can do and why they're there to begin with.

Final Thoughts
This book was better than I expected. Although I wouldn't call it a favorite, I can see why some people really like it. By itself, it's a good fantastical tale set in more modern times (compared to say, medieval Europe). It's a bit over the top at times, but still enjoyable.


  1. Hi! I’m a PhD candidate in Russian Literature, and I found your review really fascinating. It delighted me that someone outside my field found this novel enjoyable.

    I hope you don't mind, but I have a few comments that may explain the text’s disjointed nature (in case you’re interested):

    The 1930s was a turbulent time in the Soviet Union. Stalin had entered power and was beginning his horrific purges that wiped out millions of people. As a writer, it was impossible to publish unless you were part of the Writers’ Union (the MASSOLIT administration and the Griboyedev building both point towards this…only members of the union could enter the building, reap its benefits, etc.). Shortages of basic items were on the rise, corruption was spreading, and so on. Not exactly the most pleasant atmosphere.

    While the novel seems schizophrenic because it jumps from 1930s Moscow to Pontius Pilate’s story, there is in fact good reason for this. One theme that can be seen as a result of this is literary freedom. The story of Yeshua and Pilate is the Master’s story, the story he was never able to publish because he did not belong to the Writer’s Union. An underground writer in the USSR could never publish officially, and if he/she did manage to publish in some way, it was often fragmented (e.g., it might be published abroad and only reach Russians later, or it might be written on various scraps of paper). Thus, this seemingly disjointed story of Pilate that infiltrates the larger story of “modern” Moscow reflects the unfavorable atmosphere for writers in the Soviet Union.

    Keep in mind, though, that these stories are more closely connected that one might think. There are a number of themes or objects that appear in both settings: things happen at the same time (noon, for instance), thunderstorms happen at key moments, and so on. Furthermore, characters in both stories act similarly: Pontius Pilate gives up on Yeshua much like Bezdomny is abandoned and left in the asylum; Levi Matvei is a writer who transcribes Yeshua’s story incorrectly, while half-witted official Soviet writers bumble around.

    There is also the theme of good versus evil: Woland’s presence, along with his followers (my favorite being Begemot!), proves the existence of good, ironically. Moscow is turbulent, for reasons mentioned above, and he and his crew prove that people are greedy and selfish. Yet ultimately, he shows that there is good in the world. For instance, after Margarita selflessly gives up her freedom to save a tortured soul (the woman who killed her baby) Woland allows her and the Master to be together. Certainly, he identifies corruption in Moscow and stirs up lots of trouble, but ultimately we see that good can triumph, and even the Devil himself will not stop that from happening.

    Finally, there is faith versus science…Moscow in the 1930s was officially atheist (the State was the Religion), whereas the other story has clear religious references. Moscow of the ‘30s was supposed to be an industrial, godless landscape, and yet in this novel, religion can still have a presence. In the end, God (or rather, goodness) exists, though perhaps not in the conventional way. Bulgakov isn’t discrediting science or technological advancement, by any means, but he does demonstrate that taking an ideal (atheistic industry, e.g.) to its extreme is useless and even harmful.

    There is a ton more to be said about this novel, but I suppose these are some of the main points/themes. I hope this may change your mind as to the novel’s inconsistencies, but if not, this was fun to write anyways. Thanks for reading!

    1. Thank you very much for your comments! I was told that subsequent readings of the novel are great as you start seeing all the connections there. Now that you mention the thunderstorm, I remember noticing that (but not the part about things happening at noon)! I personally am very unfamiliar with Russian literature so this was a neat way for me to explore that time period with an enjoyable story. I'm sure I must have missed quite a few details that perhaps subsequent readings (or having lived through the times or been more familiar with the period) would help.

  2. Yeah, it's definitely a novel you have to read multiple times to fully appreciate (even if you know the field). Glad you enjoyed it! If you ever want to check out more Russian literature, you should read Roadside Picnic by the Strugatsky brothers. It's more sci-fi than fantasy, but it's still a fun novel (and much shorter than Master and Margarita!)

  3. Hi! I'm a Russian student and I am very glad to see that this novel is read not only in Russia. I will take the exam in Russian literature this year to which I actively preparing rereading Russian classical literature. I say this because now I would dare to recommend you some great books. This is a small list of my favorites :
    Eugene Onegin by Pushkin ,
    Hero of our time by Lermontov ,
    play Storm by Ostrovsky,
    collection of short stories about love Dark Alleys by Bunin,
    Anna Karenina by Tolstoy,
    War and Peace by Tolstoy,
    Idiot by Dostoevsky.
    In my opinion,there are the best of what we studied in school.
    Thank you;)

  4. An American professor is researching "The Master and Margarita" with an unusual and genius college drop-out. Suddenly he finds that it's 2005 now, and he doesn't remember anything about 2004, except that something happened and it was bad. The ebook is free on itunes for now. See a short review at: