Monday, September 06, 2010

Master Bulgakov: A Satanic Soviet

"Manuscripts don't burn"
I've recently been reading one of the greatest novels to come out of the former Soviet Union; Mikhail Bulgakov's subversive classic, The Master And Margarita. The basic premise has Satan (Woland) paying a visit to Stalin's atheistic Moscow in the 1930s and wreaking havoc on all and sundry.

Satan is accompanied by a very large demonic cat, Behemoth, who has the ability to walk on his hind legs, speak and enjoy vodka. The novel is a huge sensation in Russia with Bulgakov's former Moscow home now a museum, but it wasn't always this way. Bulgakov took over 10 years to finish it - even burning the manuscript once - and continued working on it right up until his death in 1940. Even when it was finally published in the Soviet Union almost thirty years later in 1966, it was heavily censored. It appeared in the West at around the same time and has been cited as an influence on Mick Jaggers' lyrics for "Sympathy For The Devil" released in 1968.

Bulgakov was born in 1891 in Kiev, Ukraine, and after the revolution and civil war, he arrived in Moscow in 1921. He was a novelist and a successful playwright for only about eight years before critics began sniffing him out as "anti-Soviet." By 1929 he was prevented from publishing or staging any new works and he spent the last decade of his life working on The Master and Margarita before dying of the same kidney disease that claimed his father.

The Master and Magarita is a cleverly written satire spoofing the Soviet bureaucracy and makes use of magical realism and some post-modern elements. As a playwright first, Bulgakov appreciated the possibilities that could arise from mixing genres and the novel reminds me of some of Tomson Highway's work, especially Dry Lips Oughta Move to Kapuskasing.

Here's an excerpt from Chapter 22, "Satan's Grand Ball":

"Let the ball commence!" shrieked the cat in a piercing voice. Margarita screamed and shut her eyes for several seconds. The ball burst upon her in an explosion of light, sound and smell. Arm in arm with Koroviev, Margarita found herself in a tropical forest. Scarlet-breasted parrots with green tails perched on lianas and hopping from branch to branch uttered deafening screeches of ' Ecstasy! Ecstasy! ' The forest soon came to an end and its hot, steamy air gave way to the cool of a ballroom with columns made of a yellowish, iridescent stone. Like the forest the ballroom was completely empty except for some naked Negroes in silver turbans holding candelabra. Their faces paled with excitement when Margarita floated into the ballroom with her suite, to which Azazello had now attached himself. Here Koroviev released Margarita's arm and whispered:

"Walk straight towards the tulips!"

A low wall of white tulips rose up in front of Margarita. Beyond it she saw countless lights in globes, and rows of men in tails and starched white shirts. Margarita saw then where the sound of ball music had been coming from. A roar of brass deafened her and the soaring violins that broke through it poured over her body like blood. The orchestra, all hundred and fifty of them, were playing a polonaise.

Seeing Margarita the tail-coated conductor turned pale, smiled and suddenly raised the whole orchestra to its feet with a wave of his arm. Without a moment's break in the music the orchestra stood and engulfed Margarita in sound. The conductor turned away from the players and gave a low bow. Smiling, Margarita waved to him.

"No, no, that won't do," whispered Koroviev. "He won't sleep all night. Shout to him 'Bravo, king of the waltz!'"

Margarita shouted as she was told, amazed that her voice, full as a bell, rang out over the noise of the orchestra. The conductor gave a start of pleasure, placed his left hand on his heart and with his right went on waving his white baton at the orchestra.

"Not enough," whispered Koroviev. "Look over there at the first violins and nod to them so that every one of them thinks you recognise him personally. They are all world famous. Look, there … on the first desk – that's Joachim! That's right! Very good...Now – on we go."

"Who is the conductor?" asked Margarita as she floated away.

"Johann Strauss!" cried the cat.

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