“Your interlocutor was at Pilate’s, and had breakfast with Kant, and now he’s visiting Moscow.”
The devil comes to Soviet Moscow.
Written during Stalin’s 1930’s and first published in 1967, The Master and Margarita is Russian author and playwright Mikhail Bulgakov’s story about the Devil and his “retinue” showing up in Moscow. What follows is both hilarious and bizarre. Bizarre, actually, would be a euphemism.
A Professor W. (which stands for Woland we are to later find out) forces his way into a conversation between two Muscovites: Berlioz, a literary critic, and Ivan Homeless, a poet. Woland is amused and dumbfounded to find out that Berlioz and Ivan are materialists and that they do not accept the historicity of Yeshua (Jesus). Woland tells them his story (which is a story put into book form by “The Master”–who is currently residing in an insane asylum after having burned his book and given up on society) about being at Yeshua’s trial alongside Pontius Pilate.
Berlioz ends up dying–after being told by Woland how and when he was going to die. Ivan, after seeing Berlioz’s death play out the exact way in which it was described by Woland, ends up in an insane asylum. The same asylum as The Master.
Woland and his retinue (Koroviev, who wears a pince-nez. Azazello, who has fiery red hair, a fang-tooth, and wears a bowler hat. Hella, his maid-servant. And Behemoth, a black cat the size of a hog who walks on his hind legs and talks) put on a “black magic” show for the citizens at a local theater. As a result of the show a few more end up in the asylum and a ripple of general chaos is spread throughout Moscow.
The novel is split into two “books” and the first book ends with this chaos of missing persons and delusions. The second book deals more with The Master and his lover Margarita. Woland invites Margarita to a midnight “ball” he is putting on and afterwards rewards her with a wish. She chooses to be reunited with her lover from the insane asylum, The Master, and for his book about Pilate (which The Master had burned due to its lack of interest for publication) to be restored. Woland grants this wish.
Azazello retrieves The Master and Margarita from their home where they have poisoned themselves and brings them along with Woland and the others away from the city to some sort of limbo or other-world afterlife.
Throughout the story, The Master’s book (an intentionally inaccurate fictionalization of the Gospels) about Pontius Pilate and the events surrounding the death of Yeshua is interwoven with the narrative of Woland and his “consultation” in Moscow. It seems Woland has come to Moscow to create supernatural disturbances among the citizenry and to retrieve or, possibly, to rescue The Master and his lover Margarita from the material world.
Bizarre is a euphemism.
This edition was translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Their notes throughout the book are absolutely essential to helping understand the context and meaning of Bulgakov’s work. I’m not sure this is a book to recommend to anyone other than those interested in Soviet-era literature. For a full understanding of The Master and Margarita, multiple readings seem necessary as well as online sources to help reveal the various layers of the narrative and the many references/parallels to historical figures and ideas, as well as its satirical jabs at the Soviet system.
If this idea of the devil appearing throughout history seems familiar, you might be a Rolling Stones fan. In the song “Sympathy for the Devil” historical events are recounted through the eyes of the Devil. According to Wikipedia, Mick Jagger was well aware of and had read Bulgakov’s book (first published in 1967. “Sympathy for the Devil” was a track released on the 1968 album Beggars Banquet) and used it as a source of inspiration, along with the writings of Baudelaire.