Pardon my scandalous irreverence.
I apologize because I am going to say something that I know I am not qualified to state. This book’s literary merit is overrated (unless probably one reads it in it’s original form). I read the translation of Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor and everything that follows reflects that version.
The plot is very simple. Let nobody fool you into over-analyzing this book’s layers. It is a sequence of disjointed happenings written expressly to disorient us readers. A series of mysterious (and I literally mean mysterious, as in the word m-y-s-t-e-r-i-o-u-s is the adjective used in the work) happenings wrought by the Devil and his retinue. Interspersed is a historical biography of Jesus’ final days as seen through the eyes of Pontius Pilate. The second half of the book deals with the love story of Margarita and her Master and whether they overcome the stifles of fellow petty Russians. Character analysis is minimal. Events are described with just two things in mind. Obscure allegories to hide behind when illustrating dangerous realities and shock value. That is about it. See? It is not very complex. Nothing immensely gratifying, nor profoundly analytic about anything worth 2 dimes.
Literary dud – Political dynamite
You may ask, “Ah, you non believer, then how does it sit at the very top of bookshelves of pontificating vodka drinkers?”. Let me try and explain. The book was written as an outcry against the severe regime of soviet censorship. A period of enforced atheism, heavily policed artistic freedoms and social stupor from cowardice. This book was everything that the autocratic soviet regime was stifling. Unholy religion, unbridled satire, unsullied history and magic realism. A brave work that dons the mask of the jester to mock the state. And everybody lapped it. Just like with Arundati Roy’s The God of Small Things, I completely understand the political need for the book. But the literary value is minimal. Let me put another question in your mouth. “What does a brown boy of the 2000s know about the oppression of Soviet era?”
Soviet Era Russia – Nationalistic Indian Era
Accord me the same sentiment that you granted the book The Master and Margarita (I know I am unworthy of it, but still). India is today a land that takes as much pride in its arbitrary censorship of art as Russia did, albeit less efficiently. If in Russia the KGB were the stony faced enforcers, in India it is the fully animated saffron (Hindu) and green (Muslim) brigades. While the Soviets guarded against religiosity, the Indians are wary of the exact opposite. Mirror images. Salman Rushdie, Tasleema Nasreen and Wendy Donigher have all borne the brunt of such literary ejections. How interesting to transfer the writers into each other’s era. Bulgakov’s obfuscation will only serve to feed the already rabid religious in India to further commit inhumanities under unscientific propaganda while Wendy Donigher would have met with a little more direction from the Russians then to make her work more irreverent and blasphemous. In essence, two works that gained popularity not because of their timeless quality of work but because they capture the dissident voice of the prevailing regime.
And in such cases do the books matter as much as the writer’s risk to question the oppressive norm through the literary vehicle of satire?