So far the moral of the story seems to be: stop taking things too seriously, and be wary of giant cats.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. After the pleasant if short-lived experience with Genki Kawamura’s If Cats Disappeared from the World, we fly out of Japan and come into Soviet Russia, coincidentally also involving another less benevolent cat. The Master and Margarita (Amazon; Fully Booked; Book Depository) is apparently a well-loved classic of Russian literature, written by Mikhail Bulgakov in the middle of the Stalin regime, but published much later, after the author’s death. It is a landmark of satirical fiction, with enough subtlety that one can just barely miss the point of the novel poking fun at Stalin/Soviet Rule and the largely atheistic literary establishment of the time, and still carry enough vitriol to fuel Bulgakov’s biting wit.
The novel opens with a bang: the Devil comes into Moscow and meets Berlioz, editor of a respected literary magazine, and the famous poet Ivan Nikolaevich. The Devil captures the attention of the two men with a story of Jesus’s ordeal with Pontius Pilate, seeking to prove to them that Jesus was indeed a real, historical figure. While the Devil – introducing himself under the name Woland, a professor who’s come into Moscow to serve as a “foreign consultant” – first strikes the two men as demented, he becomes a frightening element to Ivan after he predicts the death of Berlioz in a freak accident, just moments before it happens. Ivan rushes to warn his colleagues, members of the literary journal, but instead he is tied up and brought to the madhouse.
It turns out that the Devil has other tricks up his sleeve. Accompanied by Koroviev, his equally malevolent stage hand, and Behemoth, a cat the size of a hog who can talk, walk upright, and at times even take the form of a human, he contrives to put up a show of black magic before the Russian public. Those who become suspicious of his acts are met with increasingly maddening fates (one gets framed before the police for speculating in foreign currency, one gets teleported to Yalta in his underwear, and another goes crazy after getting his head torn off and replaced by Behemoth in the middle of a live performance).
If it’s not apparent yet, The Master and Margarita is a novel that doesn’t shy away from raising a few eyebrows. In fact it goes out of its way to be as weird and ridiculous as possible, with the inherent horror and tragedy that befalls each of its characters being felt only later, after the laughs have died down. The unabashed weirdness of the novel may have something to do with Bulgakov apparently having written the novel without expecting it to be read by anyone, ever. In fact, attempting to write such a material alone would have been criminal enough, this being the time when the KGB would knock down doors and arrest alleged enemies of the state, and in 1930 he burned his first draft only to start all over again the following year.
That Bulgakov lived through some of the darkest times of Russian history and yet managed to write a novel so critical and laugh-out-loud ridiculous at the same time seems to me a testament of human creativity. Those dark times may have passed, but Master continues to find an audience among modern readers precisely because Bulgakov sends a message that has never really ceased being relevant: in dark times, never forget to laugh.
(Preview image used: The Master and Margarita, front cover from Penguin Books Australia.)