Begun by Bulgakov in the late 1920s, it was written and re-written during the 1930s, at the height of the Stalinist repression. A full Russian version was only published in the early 70s, thirty years after the author’s death. It is a fantasy, a fable, an hilarious satire, a protest, a mystical reverie, and a lot more, no doubt. It is certainly not easy to categorize. Would such a book have achieved its notoriety if it had been written in, say, the USA? No – part of its tremendous appeal is that it is the veritable anti-novel, the anti-dote, to the time and place in which it was written.
The story is centered on a visit by Satan to Moscow to get a Queen to preside over his annual ball, or maybe just to have some fun. The devil is an affable fellow, rather clever and slick, and his assistants are colorful clowns. The most amusing is an enormous black tomcat given to ironic and satirical jibes. They wreak havoc amongst the stuffy Soviet toadies and functionaries they encounter, and they retrieve Margarita to preside over Satan’s grand ball.
Interwoven with this tale of witchcraft and demonic mischief is a story of the confrontation of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. The story is the novel written by The Master, Margarita’s lover, but it is also an historical narrative that has separate status. There any many hooks on which to hang allegorical and satirical interpretations, but the novel is remarkable in what it most emphatically does not do – it does not present a simple rejection of the horrible system under which its author was living. Simply by being written, a story that treats the New Testament as something other than a fairy tale and lie, by celebrating hedonistic and individualistic pleasure, and of course, by making fun of bureaucrats, it is a such a total rejection. There was no need to shove it into the faces of its readers.
Some contemporary Russian illustrations for the novel: