The devil went down to Moscow
Occasionally I’ll share my thoughts on a book, movie, or TV show that I absolutely love. For the first edition, I offer you The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.
Some things you should know before you go any further:
- There will be lots of horror, sci-fi, fantasy on my “You Should Check This Out” posts. So if this is not your scene, you might want to skip them. However, I strongly suggest you give them a try. A lot can be done when the shackles of reality are removed from the writer’s work.
- I’ve studied the craft of writing my entire life and have several degrees in it, so, you know, I know what I’m talking about.
- I have an actual list of criteria I use to help me decide how much I like a book, story, movie, television show, etc. You can check it out here.
- I will do my best to keep my reviews spoiler free, which will, admittedly, add to the vagueness of my descriptions.
Without any further ado then, here goes….
Published in 1967 after the manuscript was smuggled out of Russia, The Master and Margarita tells the tale of the devil’s visit to Moscow sometime in the 1930s and juxtaposes it with a story of the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth as seen through the eyes of Pontius Pilate. It is a fantastical, farcical, horrific, romantic, satirical story that, I argue, could very well be one of the first bizarro novels ever written.
When the devil and his closest compatriots visit Moscow in the 1930s, all hell breaks loose. They specifically target Moscow’s literary elite (who the author thinks has been working closely with Stalin’s oppressive government to keep the masses blinded to his evil). This, naturally, causes levels of havoc Stalin would certainly find disturbing.
Ah, but there’s more! Not only does one of the most acclaimed novels of the 20th century bless readers with a beheading by trolly, witches, fires, at least one vampire, romance, shapeshifting, and farcical manipulation on an almost profound level that leads to naked people running through the streets panicked, there’s also a giant talking black cat named Behemoth. To add fire to the flame (pun intended), Bulgakov’s unique retelling of the Crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth is something to behold.
So why does something so objectively insane work so well? Bulgakov uses this madness to critique everything from Stalin’s tyrannical dictatorship and the writers and artists who support him to Christianity in general — which he also defends.
In other words, the book has a premise and this premise is presented with compelling characters, intriguing and entertaining action, and nods to literature that came before it. But what is the premise? Maybe it is something as simple as “things are not always what they seem.” Maybe it is something like, “evil men are the devil’s playthings.” It could also be more complicated. It could also be suggesting that villains might not be as villainous as we think and heroes… well… heroes are just people.
I think all of these premises, and many more, can be found in this novel. I’d offer specific lines to help prove my point, but I don’t want to spoil anything for you. I’ll give you a taste though, free from comment….
“There is, if you will, something evil that lurks in men who shun wine, cards, the company of charming women, and table talk. Such people are either gravely ill, or secretly hate those around them.”