The Devil Went Down to Moskvá

My More Than Just a Kiss post is here.

(This review of Mikhail Afanasiyevich Bulgakov’s best-known novel, The Master and Margarita, was taken from the much-longer review I originally wrote for my old Angelfire site around 2004.)

Translation: 3.5 stars

Overall material: 5 stars

First things first: Michael Glenny was a horrible translator. He did a terrible job with August 1914, and this isn’t much better. His transliteration style is awful, and he “translates” a few names. His proofreader was also terrible, what with all the typographical errors. The female patronymical forms for Ilya and Nikíta are also incorrectly rendered as Ilyishna and Nikitishna.

So, it’s 1920, and the Devil has decided to visit Moskvá. He appears by Patriarch’s Pond to two writers, Iván Bezdómniy (whose pseudonym literally means homeless or stray) and his editor Mísha Berlioz, the head of their literary organisation and newspaper. Berlioz is in the midst of telling Bezdómniy why the anti-religion poem he commissioned him for doesn’t work, since it treats these things he derides as actually happening. He’s educating him about why Jesus never existed when Satan comes up and asks to join their conversation.

He assures them that the Devil does exist, which they denied, and says he knows the Crucifixion took place because he was there. He also says a number of other things which cause them to think he’s a nutcase, and decide they’ll call the police on this lunatic foreigner, who claims to be a specialist in black magic.

Unfortunately, Berlioz has an untimely demise under a streetcar, exactly as the Devil foretold. When Bezdómniy begins to chase after him and tries to get help, they think he’s drunk. In the midst of his great chase, he sees the rogue professor joined by another man and a huge black cat, but the three soon split up.

Bezdómniy gets into the river to swim after a boat one of them has boarded. When he gets out, the man he left his clothes with has vanished, leaving only a tattered blouse, night shorts, a candle, and an ikon. In this state of undress, he bursts into the restaurant in the Griboyedov building, where all the writers live, and causes a huge scene. Nobody believes his wild story, so he’s taken away to a mental hospital.

The Devil, who goes by Woland, has a whole retinue of Satanic cohorts—Hella, a naked female vampire-maid; Behemoth, the huge black cat; Azazello, a man with fiery red hair, a walleye, and a jutting fang; and Koroviyev-Faggot, a dastardly interpreter wearing checks and a broken pince-nez. (It’s pronounced Fa-GOAT, not the other way.)

Behemoth can talk, play chess, shoot a Browning with perfect aim, walk on his hind legs, and drink vodka. He also gilds his whiskers and wears a bowtie when the Devil gives a ball of the damned. Behemoth is a bit of an obnoxious pest, but he’s also irresistibly funny. My favourite scene with him is when he’s in a shoot-out with the police, and Woland demands from behind a closed door, “What’s happening in this flat? It’s disrupting my work.” One of his retinue shouts, “It’s Behemoth, of course, damn him!”

Soon, stranger and stranger things begin happening. These creepy events include Berlioz’s roommate Stepán Likhodeyev being spirited away to Yalta through black magic so the Devil and his retinue can move in. Soon after their arrival, they perform at a huge public show, “Black Magic Revealed.” Many scandalous things follow this show. The police don’t get on the case and start taking things seriously till the Devil and his friends are set to leave town.

The title comes from the unnamed Master and his mistress Margaríta. The Master wrote a novel about Pontius Pilate and the Passion, totally contrary to the Biblical account. It also offended the authorities, in particular a critic named Latunskiy. In depression, he burned all his copies, except one chapter which Margaríta managed to pull out of the flames. Now he’s in a mental ward and thinks he’ll never see her again. But then, Azazello gives Margaríta magical cream that turns her into an invisible witch, and recruits her to be the hostess at a ball hosted by Satan.

Satan and Pilate are shown as sympathetic, human characters, not pure unquestioned evil. The events of the Crucifixion are also completely contrary to the Biblical account. But like Berlioz and Woland say in the beginning, we only believe the Biblical version because we have no other version. We take other people’s word for what is truth, fiction, reality, and unreality, rather than examining it in a closer light and finding out for ourselves what is truth and what is lies.

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One comment on “The Devil Went Down to Moskvá

  1. […] 4. The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Afanasiyevich Bulgakov. This story is so fun, witty, satirical, and irreverent. It’s not for the easily-offended, but the political and religious commentary are part of the overall story, not just put in to be shocking or offensive. Avoid the Michael Glenny translation like the plague. He was a horrible translator. […]

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