Sean Carman: The Last Book I Loved, The Master and Margarita
A poet named Homeless and his friend Berlioz, the editor of a literary magazine, sit on a park bench at the Patriarch Ponds in Moscow, drinking apricot soda and discussing a poem Homeless has written about Jesus.
The problem with the poem, Berlioz explains, is that Homeless hasn’t made it clear that Jesus never lived. Just then a stranger appears, weaving himself out of the air, hovering above the ground, and swaying back and forth before the editor and the poet. He wears a peaked jockey’s cap and a checkered jacket, and is seven feet tall and narrow in the shoulders. Homeless and Berlioz take him for a foreigner.
“Pardon me,” the stranger says, “but I couldn’t help overhearing. Did you say that Jesus never existed?”
When Berlioz answers, and further confirms that he and Homeless, along with most of Russia, don’t believe in God, the foreigner is delighted.
“Oh, how lovely!” he cries, and then he swivels his head and shakes Berlioz’s hand.
“Allow me to thank you with all my heart!”
So begins Mikhail Bulgakov’s charming and subversive masterpiece, The Master and Margarita. The shimmering foreigner, it turns out, is the Devil, and he’s just discovered the perfect city in which to wreak havoc and settle some scores, the oldest of which took place in ancient Jerusalem, almost 2,000 years before, and involved the fifth procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate, and a thief he once condemned to hang from a cross.
Having found a city that seems perfect for them, the Devil and his henchmen — an ex-choirmaster with checkered pants and a cracked pince-nez, and a coal-black tomcat who walks upright on his hind legs — plunge Moscow into chaos. They burn down the meeting house of Moscow’s foremost literary society. They perform a series of enchanting and horrifying black magic shows at the Variety Theater. The poor poet Homeless is confined to a mental hospital with the Master, a novelist tortured into insanity by his critics. The Master’s lover, Margarita, who only wants to release her beloved from his torment, accepts the Devil’s invitation to become a witch and, in my favorite episode, slathers her body with a magic potion so she can fly naked and invisible on a broomstick over the rooftops of Moscow.
All of this — and so much more in the novel — is amazing, but the true genius of The Master and Margarita lies in the larger stories it tells. For Bulgakov’s enchanting love story, and his winning satire of politics and art, is also the brilliant sequel to the greatest story ever told. That story, as Bulgakov would tell it, concerns a thief who was the son of God, and who was once led into the colonnade between the two wings of the palace of Herod the Great, his hands bound behind his back, to be sentenced by an equestrian who wore a white cloak with a blood-red lining, was the cruel fifth procurator of Judea and the son of the astrologer-king, and has never, in all of history, been forgiven for his crime.