On the lookout for something bold and exciting to read, I browsed through my well-thumbed copy of 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die and came across The Master and Margarita by the Russian writer Mikhail Bulgakov.
Published almost 30 years after the author’s death in 1936 and having circulated underground for many years during the dark days of Stalin’s Soviet Union totalitarianism, its described as “one of the finest achievements in 20th century Russian fiction” and “pulsating with mischievous energy and invention”.
It’s also highly influential with its fantastical story of the devil and his otherworldly cohorts descending on Moscow of the 1930s providing the template for the magic realism of authors like Salman Rushdie and Thomas Pynchon, songs like “Sympathy for the Devil” by the Rolling Stones, Franz Ferdinand’s “Love & Destroy” and Pearl Jame’s “Pilate” and inspiring countless theatrical plays, TV movies, films, graphic novels, artworks and radio plays.
I found it to be fully deserving of its reputation: it’s a devastatingly brilliant book, highly original, way ahead of its time, very dark and very funny. In film terms think Witches of Eastwick mixed up with a dash of Angel Heart, Jacob’s Ladder and The Exorcist and you would have a good approximation of the mood and feel of the book.
I was entranced from the very first scene, set one Wednesday summer evening in every day Moscow where we meet the mysterious and dapperly dressed foreigner, Professor Woland, who appears to materialise out of thin air at Patriarch Ponds.
“Just then the sultry air coagulated and wove itself into the shape of a man – a transparent man of the strangest appearance. The man was seven feet tall but narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin with a face made for derision.”
Woland, who is the devil, gets into conversation with two poets, Ivan and Berlioz arguing with them that God does exist. Egged on by the revolted and indignant Berlioz to demonstrate his magical powers, Woland predicts that Berlioz will die soon by having his “head cut off”. To the astonishment of Ivan, this event occurs a short while later, when Berlioz on leaving the park is decapitated after slipping and falling under a tram with his head seen “bobbing down the street”.
This combination of cunningness and gentlemanly charm pervades the whole novel as Woland and his companions – the grotesque valet Koroviev; an enormous talking black cat called Behemoth (one of the best creations in fiction in my view), fanged hitman Azazello and an assortment of witches and other demons wreak all manner of chaos on Moscow’s disbelieving middle-classes.
Profesor Woland, with his Hannibal Lector-like manner, and his devilish companions all have incredible supernatural powers. They can bend the will of all those they encounter, turn paper into money and back again, and they have great fun playing on the greed and vanity of the middle classes – to the delight of the reader!
One of my favourite scene in the book – replicated in art – takes places at the Variety Theatre, where Woland has “convinced” the theatre management to sign him on for a series of acts of black magic.
Things turn decidedly ghoulish when it is suggested to Koroviev, the host of the show, that they cut off the head of Bengalsky, the master of ceremonies for “sticking his nose in everywhere without being asked”.
“Cut of his head? That’s an idea! Behemoth!,” he shouted at the cat. “Do your stuff! Eins, zwei, drei!”.
Then the most incredible thing happened. The cat’s fur stood on end and it uttered a harrowing ‘miaaow’. It crouched, then leaped like a panther straight for Bengalsky’s chest and from there to his head…with a wild screech it twisted the head clean off the neck in two turns.
The horror is ratcheted up a notch as Bengalsky’s head is picked up and showed to the audience. “Fetch a doctor” the head moans. After promising to stop talking “so much rubbish” the head is plopped back on its shoulders as if it had never been parted.
The compere was weeping, snatching at something in the air and mumbling: “Give me back my head, my head…”
This is just a taste of the horror and magic of the book: a later fantastical scene involves the beautiful Margherita, who attends a sumptuous Satanic ball that could easily have been a scene out of The Great Gatsby:
Fountains played between the walls of floors and champagne bubbled in three ornamental basins, the first of which was a translucent violet in colour, the second ruby, the third crystal…negroes in scarlet turbans were busy with silver scoops…in a gap in a wall a man bounced up and down on a stage in a red swallow-tailed coat conducting an unbearably loud jazz band.
Here Margarita, who longs to be re-united with her Master, witnesses damned souls climb through an immense fireplace with a pitch black mouth and transform themselves back into the living:.
Then there was a crash from below in the enormous fireplace and out of it sprang a gallows with a half-decaying corpse bouncing on its arm. The corpse jerked itself lose from the rope, fell to the ground and stood up as a dark handsome man in tailcoat and lacquered pumps. A small rotting coffin then slithered out of the fireplace, its lid flew off and another corpse jumped out.
In between there are floating ghouls, witches that swoop through the air on brooms and events that can only be explained by the darkest magic.
The greedy are duly punished – and deserving of it – while he devil of course is by far the most charming (and likeable) character of all.