Saturday, January 22, 2011

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I read this in audio format – an excellent recording by Julian Rhind-Tutt.

Written in fits and starts during the 1930s and 40s, published in highly censored form in Stalin's Russia, and finally published in its entirety in the 1970s, this book takes on as many forms and plays as many roles as Satan and his entourage, who are, coincidentally, key characters in it.

It's political satire: Although the story's details are Russian through and through, Bulgakov's jabs could be aimed at any totalitarian state. It's a meditation on good and evil: Satan and his companions wreak havoc on their visit to Moscow yet still manage to set free some trapped souls. In another strand of the plot, Pontius Pilate, Jesus, and Judas meet in ways quite at odds with the Gospel's rendition.   It questions the nature of reality: When Muscovites try to explain the bizarre occurrences that they've seen (thanks to the shenanigans of the devil and his minions), the authorities commit them to asylums. In the epilogue, Bulgakov provides the government's prosaic, revisionist, official explanations for said shenanigans.

If all that sounds like too much literary high-mindedness, forget it all. Above all else, this book is funny. Whimsical, fantastic, ironic, and just laugh-out-loud funny. One of Satan's entourage is Behemoth, a fat, black cat. Behemoth is prone to walking on his hind legs, donning a bow-tie (and gilding his whiskers) for Satan's ball, and attempting to board the tram with ticket money in hand (or paw). He's a consummately Russian cat, of course – I adored the image of him sitting upright in a chair, a glass of vodka in one forepaw, and eating pickled mushrooms with a fork in the other. As I searched the internet for images related to The Master and Margarita, I came across several drawings of this scene, so I wasn't the only one who loved it.

Toward the end of the book, the police have finally decided to investigate the string of bizarre events, which are too numerous to ignore or disregard as the ravings of lunatics. They come to the apartment where Satan, et al., are staying, and here they find Behemoth:
In his paws was a primus stove. The visitors eyed the cat in complete silence for a considerable length of time.
'Hmmm, that's quite something,' one of them whispered.
'Not fooling around. Not bothering nobody. Just sitting here, mending the primus,' said the cat with a hostile frown. 'And moreover, I consider it my duty to warn you that the cat is an ancient, inviolable animal.'
'Exceptionally clean work,' whispered another visitor, while a third said loudly and distinctly, 'All right, come along, you inviolable ventriloquist kitty.'
A silk net unfurled and flew through the air, but to everyone's surprise, the man throwing the net missed and caught only the jug, which promptly smashed to pieces with a ringing noise.
'Forfeit!' bellowed the cat, 'Hurrah!' and putting aside the primus, he whipped a Browning automatic from behind his back. He instantly aimed at the man closest to him, but before the cat could fire, something flashed in the target's hand. To the sound of a Mauser shot, the cat flopped headfirst from the mantelpiece to the floor, dropping the Browning and releasing the primus.
'It's all over,' the cat said in a weak voice, sprawling languidly in a pool of blood. 'Leave me alone a moment, and let me say good-bye to the earth. Oh, Azazello, my friend,' the cat moaned, bleeding copiously, 'where are you?' The cat rolled his fading eyes toward the dining room door. 'You did not come to my aid in this unequal fight. You abandoned poor Behemoth, trading him for a drink (though a very good one) of cognac. Well then, my death be on your conscience, and I bequeath you my Browning.'
'The net... the net! the net!' the men whispered anxiously around the cat, but hell knows why, the net got stuck in someone's pocket and would not come out...
Never letting go of the primus (or the Browning) the cat leads the men on a crazy chase, swinging from the chandelier, shooting the place apart.  No one is killed, nor even wounded.
As for the cat's first wound, it had doubtless been no more than a ruse and a scam.
Hell knows why. 

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