Friday, February 22, 2013

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

I love Russian books. My introduction to adult literature was through a collection of short-stories by Gorky, a book I received as a prize in Middle School. I may not have understood all of it but I appreciated it.

I was also very much the product of the Cold War era. Non-aligned India leaned left, the Indian Air Force flew MiG-21s, my father spoke Russian, our family possessed Soviet memorabilia from his only trip abroad. And books from Russia were cheap. I grew up reading ‘And Quiet Flows the Don’.  As I read more I grew to love Lara and Aksinya and Levin and Ivan and Mitya and Grushenka. I loved the honest and fierce sensibility of the Russian writers, their brilliance that gave full play to drama but controlled it, in page after page devoted to the terrible search for an elusive truth and happiness.

And then I took up The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov’s offering that has upended all my notions of Russian Literature. This is not a book that systematically plumbs the depths of human experience. Instead, it calls to mind flying fish leaping to evade the predators lurking below. If you will, dolphins coming up for air. If there is a tinge of hysteria in this experiment in magical realism, that, I suppose accounts for the realism. 

Mikhail Bulgakov
This book was written in secret, in Russia between 1929 and 1940, at the time of the Great Purge, when repression, deportations and sudden disappearances were the order of the day, when writers kept packed suitcases in the hallway, preparing for the proverbial midnight knock on the door. Bulgakov came from a family of priests and had served in the White Army; moreover he was a playwright who in the best Russian tradition wished to portray reality as he understood it, his understanding often at odds with that of a totalitarian regime. He was a prime candidate for the lethal moniker ‘Enemy of the state’. Writing a subversive novel like the Master and Margarita was a risk, but it might have also been its author’s redemption. Indeed Mikhail Bulgakov had no immediate hopes of its publication as he raced to finish this masterpiece before he died.

'The Master and Margarita' opens one hot spring evening in Moscow, with the arrival of supernatural forces in the form of a Professor Woland and his assistants. Professor Woland strikes up conversation with two men – a literary critic and a poet. To elucidate his point, he goes on to narrate a fascinating account of the events surrounding the Crucifixion. He also predicts precisely the gruesome death of the critic listening to his story. What follows is mayhem, a series of inexplicable and magical events that rock Moscow. The poet who has witnessed the death of his friend and the supernatural abilities of this Professor (of Black Magic) finds himself in a lunatic asylum. There he meets the Master, a man who has suffered a nervous breakdown following the rejection of his life’s work, an account of the life of Pontius Pilate. The Master talks of  Margarita, the love of his life. Meanwhile Margarita, in order to rehabilitate the Master makes a Faustian bargain with the devil, Professor Woland that is, for he has been identified as such by common agreement. 

By the end of the book, the Master and Margarita achieve a semblance of closure as have the various Muscovites traumatised by the antics of the Devil’s coterie. So have Pontius Pilate, and significantly, a pathetic sinner, suffering for eternity for having suffocated her child.

Personally I found the Moscow narrative tedious (alright, it was painful in the extreme; it reminded me that there is a certain repetitive quality to Russian writing, and while it achieves closure for the writer, is seldom enjoyed by the reader. A case in point is Gorky’s story, character study really, of his ‘Travelling Companion’). However, I believe ‘The Master and Margarita’ makes an instant connection with people of that time and place, sending a jolt of pleasurable recognition of the travails they experienced. Bulgakov’s flights of fantasy - the witch’s Sabbath and Lucifer’s ball to give two examples, were too over the top for me. But I was in thrall to his story of Pontius Pilate, of a man who knew where justice lay but did not see it done, and suffered for it. With a few strokes of the pen – the overpowering scent of rose oil, the scorching sun, a splitting headache, a wrinkled olive tree, Bulgakov recreates first century Judea. It is a literary tour de force and a testament to Bulgakov’s genius. After I finished the book, I immediately reread the Pilate chapters, and it was every bit as enjoyable the second time around. I think I also began to understand the appeal of Christianity in Europe.

I have always wondered about the hold of an essentially pacifist religion over a basically  forceful race. It could be that people choose the religion that they need, just as the undoubtedly aggressive Mongols of Chengezed heritage gravitated to a religion that means Submission. But I wonder now, if European Christendom did not identify with Pilate. Any religion founded on martyrdom must give rise to a protective and assertive-aggressive outlook in its followers. So it should be with Sikhism and so it is with Shia-Islam. Come to think of it, modern day Zionism. A sense of ‘never again’, perhaps.

The dog and Yudhishthira ascending to heaven (ignore Bhima)
So, I called my mother with my little epiphany. She surprisingly heard me out, and then surprised me further by asserting that Bulgakov must have been exposed to Hinduism! The basis for her assertion is in his play White Guard. A character, Zhilin, asks God why he welcomes Bolsheviks into heaven, when they do not even believe in him. God replies that it is all the same to him whether the soldiers believe in him or not. He says, “Zhilin…you have to understand, that for me you are all identical – killed in the field of battle.” This is too similar to the story of King Yudhishtira of the Hindu epic Mahabharata, who dismayed to see his mortal enemies, the ‘unrighteous’ Kauravas in heaven, asks Zhilin’s question. He too is told that the Kauravas have died in battle and have a right to heaven.

Then there is the imagery of Pilate’s dreams. In his dreams Pontius Pilate argues happily with Christ  as they ascend a sort of moonlit celestial stairway, followed by Pilate’s faithful dog (all men are bad says Pilate, no they are good says Christ, but they agree that cowardice is the worst of all human failings). This picture too, recalls Yudhishtira who refused to ascend to the heavens without his faithful dog.

 Rushdie: Bulgakov was an influence
Mamta felt that all characters were various aspects of the writer. Shivalik found it impossible to pigeonhole the book, although Rushdie’s books, in particular the Satanic Verses are comparable. In some sense all characters are reflections of its author, but to my mind, the Master and Margarita represent Mikhail Bulgakov. The Master, the impractical artist who wishes only to live through his work and is crushed by criticism and intimidation, is as much Bulgakov as is Margarita, the ambitious pragmatist, compassionate and vengeful and weighed down by the bargain she has struck with the forces of ‘evil’ to rescue the Master. (Bulgakov owed his survival to the patronage of Stalin, who had liked a play of his, and responded to an open letter with a personal telephone call- leading some to surmise that Professor Woland could even represent Stalin).

The Master offers blessed release to his hero, Pontius Pilate whose courage failed him once. The parallels between the Master, Pilate and Bulgakov are striking. Margarita similarly redeems a woman condemned to be reminded eternally of her act of suffocating her child, again an arresting analogy for the pain suffered by an artist who smothers her own creation. Does suffering and redemption lie within the same person?

If there was something that bothered me it was the strain of revenge seeking, as a balm for one’s torments. Pilate executes Judas in the book and vows eternal enmity with the Jewish Sanhedrin, Margarita trashes the apartment of the literary critic who ruined the Master. There is the unmistakable odour of anti-Semitism, although Bulgakov is objective and precise in his depictions. I have to remind myself that he died before the atrocities of the Jewish Holocaust came to light.

The book is a cry from the soul of an artist forced to acknowledge his powerlessness. A true artist cannot be a pragmatist but when he is beset by forces from without, his art has to twist and swerve into different modes of expression if it is to remain true. So it is with The Master and Margarita. A tough read, beautiful in parts, and guaranteed to leave you thinking for days.

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