I finished Mikhail Buglakov’s “The Master and Margarita” recently. Buglakov finished the novel in 1939, a year before his death of kidney failure. However, Stalinist Russia was not prepared to accept it, and it was not published until the ‘70s. It’s fabulous.
The plot alternates between modern Moscow and ancient Jerusalem. Moscow is visited by Professor Woland (Satan) and his cohorts – Koroviev, Behemeth (a huge cat), and Azazello. They set themselves up in the theater as magicians, and wreak havoc among the literary elite (as well as their audiences, at one point they rain money down on the theater, and the money, once it is spent, disintegrates).
Woland also tells the story of Pontius Pilate’s adventures in Jerusalem, including the Crucifixion of Yeshua Ha-Nozri. Strangely, this story has been accurately recounted in a novel by “The Master”, who now resides in an insane asylum. The Master’s lover is Margarita, who thinks he is dead because he disappeared (after burning his manuscript – although Satan is able to produce it, saying, “Manuscripts don’ t burn.”).
The first ‘book” of the novel involves the shenanigans of Satan and his comedy troop; in the second “book” Margarita makes her appearance, and becomes a witch, flying around on her broomstick and presiding over a Witch’s ball.
Modern Russia and ancient Jerusalem are compared and contrasted. Strangely (perhaps) the events in Jerusalem are recounted in a straight-forward, naturalistic way. Modern, atheistic Russia is a supernatural, magical place – ancient Jerusalem is prosaic and political. The novel is a fantasy, a satire, and a commentary on good and evil, courage and cowardice, and innocence and guilt. It is also a novel about stories and novel-writing. Matthew the Levite (the gospel writer) shows up, both in ancient Jerusalem and modern Moscow.
Book one is a difficult to get through – the Russian names are confusing, and the action is surrealistic. Once Margarita makes her appearance in book two, however, the novel takes off on a magical flight (just like Margarita does on her broomstick). The novel is influenced by Faust (Gretchen in Goethe’s Faust is Marguerite de Valois). Woland’s lackey Azazello may suggest the rebel angel Azazel.
I highly recommend it.