The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov asks its readers to contend with two stories at once. The devil arrives in Moscow masquerading as a stage magician and oversees a week of mayhem from a small room high up in an apartment block. In another time, in an unpublished manuscript, Pontius Pilate stares out at the wavering skyline of Jerusalem as he tries to keep the city under control during a turbulent week of festivals and executions. Bulgakov has juxtaposed these two structures so that they create a stereoscopic illusion – not unlike those old 3-D comics with their doubled shapes in red and blue – tracing out the same plotline in slightly different places to create a three-dimensional marvel.
The devil’s escapades are inked in a manic and riotous red and good lord is it fun to read! The devil’s retinue is a swirling carousel consisting of a smooth-talking dandy in broken spectacles, a moody anthropomorphic cat named Behemoth, a naked woman and a red-haired thug with a single large tooth. Everything they do is ridiculous and uninhibited and the reader repeatedly feels the thrill of witnessing the impossible. Behemoth in particular is a delight to behold — now he’s using a fork to eat sautéed mushrooms, now he’s playing chess, now he’s hanging from a chandelier and firing a handgun – and all the while he is completely indignant that the people around him refuse to accept that he is in fact a big fat tomcat who can speak fluent Russian and operate man-made tools with the greatest of ease.
The story of Pontius Pilate on the other hand is drawn in a somber and brooding blue. It is all gathering storm clouds and moonlight and calm pronouncements with ominous overtones. Bulgakov brings this well-worn story into sharp relief by using specific and tangible details; we taste Pontius Pilate’s food and we toss and turn alongside him when he cannot sleep. When he first appears before us, he has a piercing and distracting headache which is all too easy to imagine as our own. When he passes judgement in the case of Jesus of Nazareth, we don’t necessarily agree with his verdict but we feel as constrained by his fate as he does.
Through a few deft folds in his surreal plotline, Bulgakov causes these two tales to connect and loop into one another like a Moebius strip and somehow this rollicking carnival of a novel turns out to be a story about forgiveness – and a moving one at that. In the end, the reader is asked to forgive Pontius Pilate, a man who put to death the very spirit of benevolence and forgiveness.
Forgiveness is a word that modern culture seems to have forgotten. We talk a lot about debts and grudges and rights and responsibilities but we rarely mention forgiveness. A few weeks ago, on the tenth anniversary of 9/11, my partner returned home from church and told me that the homily had been about forgiveness. I was truly startled, because in all the endless discussion about the impacts and repercussions of 9/11 I had never once heard someone mention forgiveness. Certainly it is difficult to forgive, and in the case of an atrocity like 9/11 perhaps it may not be right to forgive completely, but the fact that forgiveness isn’t even part of the public dialogue is shocking and should make us wonder what exactly is at the heart of contemporary Western culture.
The Master and Margarita was written in Russian starting in 1928 but Bulgakov continued revising it until shortly before his death in 1940. For political reasons, it was not published in any form until 1966. Wikipedia says: “One historical event which Bulgakov attended had an important influence on the novel – the Spring Festival … hosted by Ambassador William Bullitt on April 24, 1935. … The decorations included a forest of ten young birch trees in the chandelier room, a dining room table covered with Finnish tulips, a lawn made of chicory grown on wet felt; an aviary made from fishnet filled with pheasants, parakeets, and one hundred zebra finches, on loan from the Moscow Zoo; and a menagerie of several mountain goats, a dozen white roosters, and a baby bear.”