The Master and Margarita

Mikhail Bulgakov

“Really, I would pawn my soul to the devil to find out whether he is alive or dead.”

Wow. What can I say about this book . . . ?

I heard about this book through an article I stumbled across in which Daniel Radcliffe names The Master and Margarita as his favourite novel. He describes the story perfectly when he says, “it’s just the greatest explosion of imagination, craziness, satire, humor, and heart.”

I loved this novel. In all honesty it is a romp of insanity and hilarity; I would recommend it highly. The novel follows the devil (who is undercover as a magician), his talking cat and an assassin through 1930s Moscow. Throughout the story the trio bewilders everyone it comes across, causing hysteria and tragedy. Several sub-plots, including those of Pilontias Pilate (the fifth prefect of Judaea from AD 26–36, best known today for the trial and crucifixion of Jesus) and the Master (who is writing a book about Pilate and now lives in a mental hospital), finish out this one-of-a-kind story.

The edition of the novel that I read is an English translation from the original Russian text completed by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor. I did some research about the various translations in existence before reading the novel, but I found this copy at a second-hand bookstore in Toronto and couldn’t pass up on the low price, so I read this version. Since I have not read any other editions I cannot comment too much on the specifics, but I can say that I did not find myself stumbling over translation oddities.

While I thoroughly enjoyed the adventures of the trio at the centre of the book and the individuals it comes across, this is definitely a novel I would like to read again. I did find that it took me a little while to get into the book, maybe because of the unique nature of the story; I have never read anything even remotely similar to this. I finished the novel feeling like there was so much that I had missed. There are countless references to Russian culture that I know Russian audiences would appreciate and understand a lot more than I did. The edition that I have is helpful in that it has a commentary section at the back of the volume, but there are not footnotes or anything in the text indicating that there is an accompanying note, so I didn’t even realize the section was there until I had finished the story. When I re-read this book I will try to use that commentary to help me with the more intricate details of the story.

Another point to touch on is the names in the novel. I had a really difficult time keeping track of which character was which. The story takes place in Moscow and, as such, the names are Russian and are unfamiliar to me. Because of this unfamiliarity, I had some trouble keeping the names straight and remembering the details attached to any one name when that character appeared again later in the novel. The names all seemed very similar to me, and it was a bit confusing.

These minor quibbles aside, this is a fantastic, philosophical, satiric, ironic novel that never fails to surprise and amuse its reader. A more casual reader will appreciate its wit and storytelling while a more invested reader will find endless subtext and complexity to enjoy. If you need something out-of-the-norm that will make you laugh out loud and scratch your head at the same time, take a trip to Moscow to meet this unforgettable cast of characters.

Story: 9/10

Writing: 7/10*

*This is a translation

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