It is all to easy to spin any number of yarns around ‘The Master and Margarita’; political allegory, social satire, religious critique. Yet, unravel the ball and the reader will find that rather than masquerading as a philosophical treatise, ‘The Master and Margarita’, a novel in which so many characters are wrapped up in disguises and masks is exactly as it seems; a febrile fantasy dealing with the visit of Satan to Moscow, a novel of talking cats, bilious and baleful demons, witches raves, Pontius Pilate and the love between a Margarita and her Master, a lachrymose poet who saccharine sadness enthuses the novel with a sense of melancholy, of loss and loneliness mixed with a mellifluous magic and darkness, as the citizens of Moscow, from the mediocre poet Ivan to the dour Grigory, dance upon the strings of Satan during his sojourn in Moscow.
On the surface ‘The Master and Margarita’ functions as a black comedy, in which the characters are caught-up in the machinations of a high power and forced into a number of increasingly grotesque and asinine situations. Whether it be the mass hysteria of the audience during Woland’s demonstration, the to mental hysteria of Ivan following his encounter with Satan, Bulgakov’s depiction of the Devil lacks the innate violence or malevolence of the standard depiction. Instead, alongside his assistants, from the wall-eyed wall-eyed Azazello to the enormous cat Behemouth, radiate a kind of dark humour, a cynicism mixed with indifference about something as irrelevant and irreverent as humanity, regarding us nothing more than a grand joke; amusing for a night or two, but otherwise not worth paying much attention to.
Interspersed within all of this is the immortal love story between the Master and Margarita, who experience an all-consuming passion symbolised by Master’s masterpiece on the interactions between Jesus and Pontius Pilate prior to his crucifixion. Paradoxically, the novel-within-a-novel which covers this part of the story is the one without any magic or fantasy, which is wholly confined to the Moscow elements of the book. ‘The Master and Margarita’ is, if nothing else, a novel which defies expectations and is impossible to define, a novel which is impossible to categorise but which instead precedes magic realism and meta-fiction, a novel which takes as much joy in upending literary conventions as it does in delighting the reader.