In the opening chapter of The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, the devil suddenly turns up during the 1930’s in Moscow, the capital of the atheistic and state controlled society of Stalinist Russia. Satan appears in the form of a magician, named Woland, who creates havoc in the lives of those around. There are sudden disappearances of individuals or strange deaths. Woland’s terrifying powers of prophecy drive a young poet into a lunatic asylum after the poet fails to find and stop Woland and his gang.
Unavailable until the mid 19960’s, this Russian novel finally hit the bookshelves to huge acclaim in Russia when the chances of persecution over the analogies and head on satires of conventional Russian life were deemed unlikely. While mostly set in Moscow, the novel also flashes back to Jerusalem where Pontius Pilate has the power of life and death over Yeshua (Jesus) and finally resigns to having Jesus handed over to be tortured and killed. It is a breathtaking novel, though somewhat incomprehensible in places.
The Master and Margarita stands out as one of the supreme novels of the 20th century with its savage satire on society, the suffocating nature on conformity and political systems and deep conflict of reason with imagination, the rational and religious beliefs. Free from the stigma of any moral judgements, Bulgakov weaves together past and present, good and evil, life and death, art and order that reflects the bizarre complexity of our lives. Even the devil has his good side.
In the novel, the Master falls into despair over his novel of events in Jerusalem so he burns his novel and rejects his devoted lover, Margarita, who sacrificed her loving and faithful husband for the Master. The Master utters the immortal lines “manuscripts don’t burn” due to the failure of hiding his novel from the authorities and from himself. (In real life, Bulgakov burned his first manuscript).
The depth and intensity of Margarita’s love for the Master means she always has him in the forefront of her priorities. She even acts as the hostess at a weird party on behalf of Woland, who grants her any wish. Woland knows her love for her Master is so deep she will go to hell for the Master. The devil grants her wish, namely to liberate the Master so she can always be with him.
The novel carries with it the conviction that art, control, imagination, impersonal forces, love and sorrow reflect the weird story of our lives where life never works to order. With a cigar smoking cat that can fly through the air, witches and sorcerers, a magic show and supernatural powers, the author uses the full range of his creative license to remind us to keep our minds open to this mad and unpredictable world.