The Master and Margarita - Mikhail Bulgakov, Diana Burgin, Katherine Tiernan O'Connor 3 - 3.5 stars

I find myself a little conflicted about this book. On the one hand it is full of scenes and ideas that are unquestionably intriguing and thought-provoking, on the other there were significant parts of it that I found, not bad, but certainly less than compelling and these latter segments made up the bulk of the first part of the novel. It wasn't until the commencement of Part Two that I felt as though things were beginning to gel and the ultimate story began to show its head. Prior to that we have three excellent introductory chapters that set up the context of the ‘main’ story: the arrival of the mysterious “Professor, Magician, and Consultant” Woland and his retinue of oddballs in 1930’s Moscow; this then shifts to an intriguing excerpt from a historical novel (written, we discover, by the titular ‘Master’) about Pontius Pilate and a decidedly un-biblical Christ. These introductory chapters are followed by a return to Moscow and, for me at least, things started to fall apart a bit as the bulk of Part One ended up being a litany of 'set-up' segments wherein Soviet intelligentsia get their comeuppances at the hands of Woland’s demonic entourage. I think my main problems with these scenes lay in the fact that I didn’t find the concentration on the internal politics of the early Soviet literary world compelling, not to mention the fact that the humour that pervades these scenes is strongly in the realm of farce, an area of comedy that really isn’t my cuppa. That being said I don’t want to knock on Bulgakov too much given that this was an unfinished novel that he apparently didn’t even expect to ever reach publication. There’s a heck of a lot going on in this book and it is a shame that we are unable to see what Bulgakov might have produced as a finished and fully polished work. What we do have is still very compelling as three main plotlines interweave and ultimately come together: the depredations made against Moscow and its tyrannical regime by Woland, who is also a very interesting version of the devil; the continuing story of Pontius Pilate, a man convinced of the evil of both himself and the world yet who desperately wants to believe in its goodness and who finds the turning point, and apparent tragedy, of his life in his meeting with the strange Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus); finally we have the love story of the titular Master and Margarita, the former a writer languishing in an insane asylum after his great work is rejected and denounced by the bureaucracy of Soviet Russia and the latter his bereaved lover whose only hope is to save him.

Woland and his retinue are easily the most colourful characters in the story and include a giant talking black cat, a checker-suited comic sorcerer, a red-haired and fanged assassin-butler, and a sultry vampiress-witch. One of the most intriguing aspects of this devil as presented by Bulgakov is that in many ways he is analogous to the totalitarian State, for who else can make people vanish without a trace, plant 'evidence' to frame the innocent (and not so innocent), and instill in all and sundry an instinctual hatred mingled with terror? At the same time, though, Woland undermines everything the State does and stands for, his victims are the petty members of its bureaucracy and he ends up doing good even if he is willing evil (see the epigram from Goethe’s _Faust_ that begins the book). Ultimately Woland comes across much more as a force of chaos than of pure evil and he even seems to have some kind of relationship with the powers of light that goes beyond the adversarial. This duality continues into Bulgakov’s presentation of the Christ-figure Yeshua Ha-Notsri: on the one hand he at first appears to be what one might expect from a novel written under the anti-religious Soviet regime: at best just a well-meaning random man from first century Palestine who was killed by the powers that be for offending the wrong people…certainly not a messiah. Yet enough hints are dropped to imply that there really is something to this strange man, though we are never told exactly what that is. In the end the only supernatural force evident in the story is the diabolic (or at least chaotic) and one is left wondering where is God? No easy answer is provided, though Bulgakov does not seem to imply a nihilistic answer to this and goes so far as to provide Woland with some distinctly un-Satanic things to say about the world that are meant to provide hope even in the face of suffering and adversity: "But what can be done, the one who loves must share the fate of the one he loves." and "But in this case, Margarita, you need not upset yourself. Everything will be made right, that is what the world is built on."

I found the ‘main’ characters of the Master and Margarita to be a mixed bag. The unnamed Master is interesting in the way he displays both elements of power (he is very self-possessed and knowledgeable as opposed to his asylum-mate Ivan's almost manic temperament and complete lack of understanding), but he also seems strangely passive at the same time. I like him, but I'm not quite sure why and I felt that he more or less remained something of a cipher throughout the novel. Margarita, on the other hand, is vivid and full of life. Her main concern may be to find her lover, but she is very active in pursuing this end and lets nothing stand in her way. She also displays a touching humanity in the face of the suffering of others. Still at times it felt like the novel should have been entitled _Woland and his Retinue_ as opposed to _The Master & Margarita_ especially since we see little enough of the Master himself throughout the book (and what we do see ends up being quite passive) and Margarita does not gain a significant presence until the second half of the book. One other character, the poet Ivan Nikolayevich Ponyryov, seems poised to play a major role in the story when we first meet him and shares many thematic commonalities with other characters in the text, but little seems to come of this, though this may again have been the result of the unfinished nature of the text.

As I mentioned most of the segments of satire worked less well, or were less interesting, for me than the moments of pathos and romance that characterized the stories of Pilate and M&M (with the notable exception of the cat Behemoth's ludicrous battle with the police in Apt. 50 which was great) and thus I found myself gravitating towards the Pilate chapters and the second half of the novel where the M&M romance story began to merge with that of Woland and his retinue. In the end I was left with a heck of a lot of questions. Why did Woland really come to Moscow in the first place? Why did he gravitate to the personal story of the Master and Margarita? How is first century Jerusalem like early 20th century Moscow? How is Woland like Pilate? What is Woland’s relationship to Yeshua Ha-Notsri? What is the meaning behind the ultimate fate of the Master and Margarita, the fact that they have "not earned light, [they have] earned peace”? Some of these questions get answers of a kind, while others are left purely to our imagination. In the end this novel certainly leaves one with much food for thought.