I was a very young adult when I read “The Master and Margarita” for the first time. I found myself fascinated by it and swept into its tumultuous currents. Many years later, I re-read the book with relish. It is a literary classic because it has stood the test of time and it transcends its original settings and the social commentary of the day it was written.
I returned to it mainly because of “Paula Goes to Heaven”, a story of intrepid encounters with the Devil and God alike which I wrote a while back but released only recently. The Devil in my story is harmless and ineffectual, but he nevertheless remains rather fierce and single-mindedly determined to bring man down. I wanted to explore how the literary image of Satan had mellowed over the centuries.
He is pretty evil in the Bible. His usual tricks, temptation and false promises one could cope with, but drowning those gormless swine in a lake was really nasty and rather unnecessary. Still, it showed his destructive powers.
He is still frighteningly unpleasant and his digs (that being various circles of Hell) a thoroughly awful place in Dante Alighieri’s “The Divine Comedy”. One wouldn’t wish to spend a day there, never mind eternity.
In “Doctor Faustus”, Lucifer remains a tough cookie. His “legal” representative, Mephistopheles may give the impression of a balanced and civilised approach when the negotiations for Doctor Faustus’s eternal soul take place and a deal is struck, but twenty-four years later all hell breaks loose. There is no mercy and Faustus is damned to Hell having gained nothing in return for his soul. A lesson learned – don’t bargain with the Devil for you will be cheated of all you have.
As centuries go by, the portrayal of the Devil softens somewhat in an attempt to make the damned creature more… human. In Terrry Pratchett’s and Neil Gaiman’s “Good Omens” the wretched beast seems strangely tame. He seems to be on good terms with the angel Aziraphale who too is very much domesticated and runs a bookshop. When they combine forces, good things happen and all evil takes the back seat.
In “The Master and Margarita” Satan, going by the name of Professor Woland, descends on the Soviet Russia, and wreaks absolute havoc. Heads roll, people go insane and events occur that make the reader’s hair stand on end. Yet, the existence of Satan defies not only logic but also the atheistic mantra of the communist state. The citizens cannot afford to believe in the supernatural causes of the goings on. Those who do are dismissed as lunatics and placed in a mental asylum. This is where poet Ivan Bezdomny meets the Master who is the author of a novel about Pontius Pilate and the times of Jesus Christ and his crucifixion. The story is retold from the point of view of a direct observer (the Devil himself) and gives an insight into and even an eerie sense of intimacy with the tormented Procurator of Judea. Still, nobody believes in it. In fact, just in case somebody might, the Master’s book is denigrated and he burns his manuscript in despair. His lover and devotee, Margarita is in despair. Even though she wants to stand by the Master he leaves her and checks himself into an asylum.
This book may be a revered classic but it is also a vivid, engaging, funny and utterly intriguing piece of fiction. The message of condemnation of the soviet regime, human greed, stupidity and narrow-mindedness is masterfully hidden within the plot and brilliant story-telling. The reader is immersed in the supernatural, the surreal, the macabre and burlesque all at the same time. The book bristles with satirical humour. And it is as relevant today as it was in the Stalinist Russia.