Book Review by Richard R. Horton
The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov, is a famous 20th Century Russian novel. It’s also a fantasy novel, and certainly of interest to genre readers.
It’s set in Moscow, apparently in the ’20s or ’30s. One day a couple of literati are talking when they meet a strange man. Before long the man is laughing at their confident assertion that the Jesus and the Devil don’t exist, and telling a story about Pontius Pilate and his encounter with Jesus, or Yeshua, and also predicting the death of one of the two men. When the death occurs, the other man goes mad. The strange man, who is, of course, the devil, and his associates, including most memorably a talking, gun-toting, very large, black cat, are spreading havoc throughout Moscow. Most spectacular is a catastrophic magic show. Those Muscovites who encounter the devilish group are mostly humiliated, sometimes killed or driven mad. One notable, perhaps ambiguous, exception, is the case of the Master, who has written a novel about Pontius Pilate which has been excoriated by the figures in power in the Moscow literary world, and his lover Margarita. Margarita encounters the devil, and goes through hell itself in an attempt to free the Master.
The novel is an odd combination of very sharp and funny satire, striking descriptive passages, and some very moving events. It also has the power of staying in your head after you read it. And I found the several long passages about Pilate and Yeshua and Matthias the Levite very affecting as well. An excellent book. (I read the Michael Glenny translation. There are several others, at least the more recent version, by Diana Burgin and Kathryn Tiernan O’Connor, is also well regarded.) The novel itself was written between about 1928 and Bulgakov’s death in 1940.