Book Review: The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov

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“Two eyes were fixed on Margarita’s face. The right one with a golden spark at its bottom, drilling anyone to the bottom of his soul, and the left one empty and black, like the narrow eye of a needle, like the entrance to the bottomless well of all darkness and shadow.”

The Master and Margarita tells the tale of the devil, Woland, as he comes to Moscow with his cohorts and wreaks havoc. It’s told in the style of a fairytale with a lot of dark humor and political satire. There are three stories that intertwine, one is the literary uppercrust of Moscow that Woland & co. take particular pleasure in tormenting, the second is the tale of Pontius Pilate set in the time of Christ, and the third is the story of the Master and Margarita. This book, simply put, is the most brilliant thing I’ve read all year. Bulgakov makes a mockery of the literary society that suppresses truth in favor of conforming to the Stalin government, his portrayal of Moscow society is over the top but the exaggeration not only adds to the humor, but is actually quite revealing and thought provoking.

I read the Peavar/Volkhonsky translation and while I thoroughly enjoyed it (and I love this gorgeous cover), the edition I have unfortunately doesn’t have any notes or an introduction. I would have liked reading some context to the political times Bulgakov wrote in before diving into the novel. It turns out that the manuscript of The Master and Margarita was heavily revised by Bulgakov but he was unable to revise the second part before he died. I think this is a book that I could re-read over and over again. I want to read it again relatively soon but I’d like to give the famous Burgin/O’Connor translation a try. The Peavar/Volkhonsky translation, while grammatically and technically accurate, is reportedly not as lyrical and poetic as the text could be. I definitely felt that in my reading.

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