The Devil comes to Moscow with his entourage of henchmen – a tram-riding cat, a fallen angel turned assassin, an ex-choirmaster, and a vampiress – and chaos and malevolence ensue. While most of the story unfolds in early 20th century Soviet Union, a few chapters focus on the story of the crucifixion as seen from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. We learn well into the book that Pontius Pilate is the subject of a novel written by the character who calls himself “the Master.” A love story between he and Margarita is central to the story, though mostly in the latter half of the book.
While Bulgakov’s book is whimsical and humorous in places, its theme is demons and supernatural beings acting in a rational, modern world that has abandoned belief in the supernatural. The Devil (who goes by the name Woland, a variation on a Germanic word for demon) and his troupe perform a black magic show that the audience assumes to be illusionism though it produces far more disturbing effects than a David Copperfield show. The story is a dark carnival tale (think Bradbury’s “Something Wicked This Way Comes” but not so much horror as a macabre comedy. One will also note that the relationship between God and the Devil is more on the order of Pratchett and Gaiman’s “Good Omens” than the Biblical rendition.)
While the book is pure fantasy in its story, it presents a thinly veiled commentary on Soviet life. Part of the reason why the mischief of Woland and his lackeys goes unthwarted is because it takes place in a world where the government “disappears” people on a regular basis and in which the quashing of religion means that even seeing doesn’t result in believing. Anyone witnessing a supernatural act is written off as drunk, insane or – at best – easily duped.
Although, as I think about this, it might not be so much a contrasting and ancient and modern life as it appears. After all, Pontius Pilate is at the fore of the historical part of the novel. Pilate, who viewed Jesus as a harmless lunatic, was troubled by the decision to execute him when the violent figure of Barabbas was selected instead for release based on a Passover norm. (Hence, Pilate’s famously “washing his hands” to the whole business of Jesus’s execution.) In this light, it may be more of a general commentary on humanity’s simultaneous need to believe in, and inability to believe in, the supernatural.
This novel is well-written, engaging, and thought-provoking, and I’d recommend it for all readers.