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Look out, it’s a Russian classic!

The Master and the Margarita is the sort of book that makes me feel more intelligent just for having opened it. I was recommended it by a friend who studies Literature, so I went in feeling suitably smug and intellectual.

A brief synopsis of this book is as follows:

The Devil comes to Moscow, together with his motley crew. High jinks ensue, including a few decapitations. Every so often we get a chapter following Pontius Pilate during the trial and execution of Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), and about halfway through the novel the title characters join the fray.

This novel, read as nothing more than a story, is bizarre. 

It features a talking cat, assorted scenes of graphic violence, a magic show, naked witches, Jesus, Pontius Pilate’s dog, and also a flying pig.

‘…sprawled in a relaxed pose on the pouffe that had once belonged to the jeweller’s wife was a third creature, namely, a black cat of horrific proportions with a glass of vodka in one paw and in the other a fork on which he had speared a pickled mushroom.’

p. 69

My basic understanding of this book is that it is a sophisticated representation of the lack of artistic freedom in Russia’s Soviet era. However, without more than a pinch of knowledge about the politics involved, it is difficult to appreciate the subtext as more than a general impression of one’s own barbaric lack of awareness.

I came out of this book wondering whether I am too stupid, or whether I am too young. I think maybe both apply, because I won’t deny that most of this novel went over my head.

On the surface The Master and Margarita is a boisterous series of comic misadventures, but there is definitely more to it. The huge appendix and overarching sense of intelligence suggest that this is the kind of novel that people can write books about. Perhaps a few years and my first wrinkle will help me glean further insight, but for now I will admit that I am sadly naïve.

I am still rating it highly though, because even reading this book as little more than a story I still found it good fun – whimsical and witty, and intellectual without having that awful quality of knowing its own intelligence to the point of arrogance.

Rating a translated book is always hard, I think, because the question ‘am I seeing the real picture?’ is a lingering one. However, the edition shown does have an extensive appendix detailing the translation process and its challenges.

The writing is nothing short of beautiful, and the comedy of the narrative is really very funny. The quote on the front cover that says ‘by turns hilarious, mysterious, contemplative and poignant’ is apt, I think, because this book somehow manages to encompass all its conflicted feelings with equal conviction.

Really, I cannot fault this book, save to say that it certainly isn’t one for light reading. Miss a few pages and you’ll have no chance. But then, I don’t think this book is trying to be simple, and like all puzzles, the fact that this one is a difficult conundrum to solve makes it rewarding to try.

This is the sort of text that makes me want to learn Russian, and whilst some of its depth was lost on me, I know that I’ll read this again one day in the hope of understanding it better.

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