Some critics consider it one of the best novels of the 20th century and one of the greatest Soviet satires ever written. I must confess I wholly agree with that statement. It was an absolutely brilliantly articulated novel, about a dark time in Soviet society (what part wasn’t really?). Written in the 1930s but only published in the 1960s due to massive censorship, this novel reflects the moods and serious issues haunting every Soviet citizen at the time.
The novel touches on powerful themes of good and evil, truth and lies, courage and cowardice and love and lust. But don’t let these seemingly basic themes fool you into thinking this a quick beach-read of a novel.
I must confess, some knowledge of the Soviet history at the time would be greatly useful to the reader, as I can see if you aren’t familiar with some of the issues of the time it may seem a bit bland to you. The fear of getting caught talking to a foreigner or carrying foreign currency is thankfully not a massive issue in most Western civilizations and so it’s hard to image it being so horrible as it is portrayed in the book. Also, widespread disappearances of important officials are not felt, as strongly today as it did back in the day, under Stalin thousands of people would just vanish without a trace during the Great Terror. Thankfully, the version I got (translated by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor) came with commentary and notes on the text at the back of the book. I feel like this gave me huge advantage into uncovering some of the satire and just being able to fully immerse myself into the novel.
There is just so much to be said about the brilliancy of this book there is no way that I will be able to touch upon all of it here. Bulgakov is able to mix deep philosophical allegory, alongside religion, mythology, socio-political issues, modern life and superficiality. The characters are brilliant, often they based on real figures in Soviet society. They encapsulate the fears and norms of soviet life, and sometimes seeing those characters interact is enough to make you laugh. The diction is pure perfection, because it he is able to articulate heavy themes in such a light and simple manner.
Satirical as it may be, it is also a very dark book. The novel is heavily influenced by the Faust legend, and themes of evil line every page of the book. The majority of the novel the Devil is toying with the atheists in Moscow, who make up the majority of the population in the novel. He does some hilarious yet simultaneously atrocious things to his victims (not Ramsey Snow style of torture) but just humiliation to maximum.
The presence of magic is often felt, as the Devil always plays tricks on his victims. But what I love about the book is how the author is able to mix reality with magic. The Devil just seems like a normal person, and the basis of the novel is real life, yet the magical elements start to creep in as the novel progresses. The Devil gives the people at the theatre show free clothes for which they greedily hauled away in masses, but as soon as they leave the theatre it all vanishes into thin air!
Verdict: This book is amazing, no matter how many times I have read it! There are so many themes present, set in Moscow which is neat, and very well written. Requires a bit more time to fully grasp/understand; breezing through it would only give you the tip of the iceberg. A must read though 🙂
Is there a book that you had to re-read because it was so good? If so what book is it? I would love you hear what you have to recommend 🙂