Michael Bulgakov’s Master and Margarita is a weird story in which the devil, in the form of a mysterious foreign visitor, Woland, and his small cadre of capricious associates, including a gigantic black were-cat, and a demon named Azazello, wreak havoc on 1930s Moscow. The title characters are Master, a writer whose unpublished novel has been denounced by government syncophants, and his lover, Margarita, who, with the aid of Azazello, becomes a sort of female Faust on a revenging rampage. Occasionally, it segues into a story about Pontius Pilate and the conviction and crucifiction of Jesus Christ, which was the subject of the Master’s illegal novel.
I’ll admit I had a hard time with the book. So much of what happens is so weird, you have to wonder if you read it right, and I often assumed I didn’t. I read Mirra Ginsburg’s translation of the novel into English, which is supposed to be more true to the original, but often reads stiffly and awkwardly. I made a brave go of reading the book in Russian, but the passages about Pontius Pilate are written in a florid style, which made getting through them a tedious process for me. And the whole story didn’t make any more sense in Russian than it did in English.
Recently, however, Russian television has been producing mini-series based on beloved novels that were banned during the most repressive years of the Soviet era. Unlike American book-based movies and mini-series, which strip a book into one simple story, or turn it into something else altogether, the Russian mini-series are amazingly true to the book. And for me, they actually add depth and detail that I never saw in the original book.
Master and Margarita is one such example. For instance, in the book, there’s a poet named Bezdomniy (“Homeless”). After he’s driven mad by Woland and his retinue, he barges into his writers’ club, and as he’s running around, I would swear I heard the others calling him “Bezdumniy” (“Mindless”). Woland’s frequent spokesperson, Fagot, seemed a little oddly dressed in print, but on screen you can see how ridiculous his outfit really is, and it helps that the actor always puts an everpresent little smirk on the character’s face. The book makes note of the fact that Woland has an indeterminate foreign accent, but in the mini-series, Pontius Pilate does, too: something I never thought about, but which makes perfect sense, since Pilate wasn’t native to Judea.
In fact, the most amazing revelation I got in watching the Russian mini-series was that the passages based on Biblical history weren’t about Jesus Christ, but rather about Pontius Pilate. All this time, I’d been thinking Bulgakov had meant to make the reader see the unfairly prosecuted Master as Jesus Christ, though it was a sloppy fit. The Master’s not saintly, nor particularly brave.
It turns out Master and Margarita is about Pontius Pilate. Bulgakov implicitly places the blame for Stalin’s great purges as much on Stalin as on the beaurocrats, judges, and others, who knew most of the accusations were unfounded, but complacently just went along with the flow, and thus let it become a flood when it could have just been a trickle. Pontius Pilate isn’t a bad man at heart; he’s just sick, tired and lonely. He’s not happy with politics taking precedence over justice, but he’s not willing to fight it, either. He’s not in Woland’s unholy retinue, nor one of the many damned at Woland’s hellish ball, but he is condemned to sit alone, separate from all humanity, mentally repeating the mistake he made for millenia. It was the literary equivalent of the quote that “The only thing necessary for evil to flourish is for good men to do nothing.”
I hope the mini-series will be released with English subtitles, so it can reach a broader audience. It’s one of those rare stories that turns out to simultaneously amusing and thought-provoking.