“If I’m not mistaken, you were saying that Jesus never existed, were you not?”
Once every year the Devil and a cadre of lesser imps, demons and witches come to earth to visit a chosen city for their annual springtime ball of the full moon; also known as the Ball of a Hundred Kings. For all manner of damned murderers, rapists, traitors and fiends it is the social event of the year and it is taking place in the most unlikely of cities: Soviet Moscow.
We come upon the prince of darkness himself in the guise of a 7ft tall foreign professor of black magic, Monsieur Woland, discussing the nature of the universe with two steadfast atheists, Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz and Ivan Nikolayich Bezdomny, of the prestigious MASOLIT literary club.
“Astounding! Forgive me for being so rude, but am I right in thinking that you do not believe in God either? I swear not to tell anyone!”
The two literary men are perturbed by this peculiar yet amicable visitor not only for his overly familiar candor but his seemingly mad ravings. The strange professor asserts quite confidently that Jesus indeed lived to be crucified by Pontius Pilate and what’s more, that he was there to witness it. Professor Woland goes on to quite accurately predict the impending death of one these men (Berlioz) which is to take place in a matter of minutes. Berlioz indeed loses his life which sets off the outrageous chain of events to come, including the institutionalization of Bezdomny to the psychiatric hospital.
Try as he may, Bezdomny is doomed to appear a raving lunatic warning the city of these bizarre characters (including a large, black, talking cat) though the damage is already done. Professor Woland and his crew proceed to systematically turn the city on its head, terrorizing everyone from police officials to theatre administrators.
Amid the chaos of the present, Bezdomny finds an unlikely ally in the mental ward who calls himself ‘the Master’. The Master has written a novel about Pontius Pilate which was ridiculed by the fascist editors and literary critics of Moscow so much he was thrown into a nervous breakdown. He burned his precious manuscript and turned his back on his great love, Margarita.
Margarita has gone the past several months believing her Master was all but disappeared into thin air when she is approached by an eccentric, fiery-haired man with a single protruding fang and an unbelievable offer. Now, if she agrees to cast off her humanity and make a deal with the devil she may have her love returned to her. The Ball of a Hundred Kings needs a hostess and Margarita needs a miracle.
How do the two lovers, the downfall of a city, and Pontius Pilate come together in this seemingly frenzied yet highly accessible story? Bulgakov paints an absurd picture which at first glance appears wrought with senseless cruelty but as it progresses we find a city in need of a little anarchy. The people of the city have grown so secure in their rationality, their fear of the state, their greed and distrust of one another Moscow has become a true source of evil in itself. In the end, Moscow could do well by a little fear of the almighty and those punished are the ones most deserving.
The story can be called absurdist satire but I saw an adventure novel with a message of love and forgiveness at its core. I felt like a kid again paging through the endless antics of Satan and his minions. It’s grotesque and fantastical and utterly hilarious. Bulgakov blurs the lines between good and evil in a society that refuses to acknowledge their existence and the result is uplifting.
You are free! Free! He is waiting for you!
This is considered one of the greatest pieces of Russian literature ever produced and it is well-deserved. Bulgakov reflects the sentiment of Soviet Moscow expertly yet the story stretches far beyond a single piece of social commentary. The message is profound and universal; the prose is simple and exciting. I highly recommend this as a must-read classic.