Saturday, 26 September 2009

The Master and Margarita

A visit to Murmansk, the grimly fascinating Soviet-era port, leaves you marked in two ways. First, with a healthy radioactive glow. Second, with a desire to read Russian literature. Actually, the second is not strictly true. What I really wanted to read was a thrilling Arctic adventure featuring submarines and derring-do, something like an early Tom Clancy, minus the American triumphalism. And I still do. Suggestions please.

Unfortunately, our local library was understocked with Soviet naval thrillers, so I raided Mrs Tomsk's library instead, and came up with The Master and Margarita. While it may not tell you how to break through the GIUK gap, it does illuminate the everyday nightmare of life under Stalin. It does this through a mixture of comedy, satire, religion and fantasy, a concoction so subversive that the introduction focuses mainly on how amazing it was that it ever got published, even if it did have to wait 26 years for the privilege.

The most arresting characters in the story are the Devil and his retinue, whose actions, alternately funny and frightening, make such a mockery of the Soviet system that you can almost hear Bulgakov yelling 'Take THAT! And THAT!'. The black magic show in particular is a highlight of the book.

Unfortunately, the title characters were a lot less entertaining. I've long thought that the greatest crime an author can commit is to make their protagonist a novelist. I suppose it's 'writing what you know', but that's no excuse for such a lack of imagination. And it's inevitably accompanied by long and tedious homilies about the vital importance of books to the fabric of the universe. It was therefore doubly distressing to find that the Master was not only a novelist, but that whole chapters are devoted to extracts from his novel.

But every rule has an exception, and in this case the author just about gets away with it. Perhaps this is because the book takes in the whole of literary society, rather than a single novelist, and this raises broader and more interesting issues of censorship and free speech. Of course these are particularly acute for a novel written and set in Stalin's time. Many of the author's choices only make sense in this historical context. For example, the retelling of Jesus's last days seems both jarringly pedestrian and superfluous compared to the main plot, until you remember that the mere assertion of this story was a highly politically incorrect act at the time.

The purpose of Margarita was less obvious to me. She's certainly necessary to the plot, and brings a lot of energy to the beginning of book two. But I never really cared about her relationship with the Master, and their carefully weighted fate left me unmoved.

Should a story be judged solely on its own merits, or get special consideration for challenging the dogmas of its time? There are plenty of moments in The Master and Margarita that make it worth reading, but it never really grabbed me as a story. It's only when viewed as a political artefact that it can be called a masterpiece.

The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
First published 1966-7
Translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, 1997