Margarita recognized him immediately, she let out a moan, clasped her hands and ran to him. She kissed his forehead, his lips, pressed her face against his prickly cheek, and long pent-up tears streamed freely down her face. She uttered only one word, senselessly repeating it over and over, “You…you…you…”
–Mikhail Bulgakov, The Master and Margarita (243)
One of the many wonderful jokes in the book The Master and Margarita is the Devil’s inability to impress the good people of Moscow circa 1930 of his unsavory powers, poor Dear. Time and again he is assumed to be a German or an agent of some frightening official governmental agency- and really, what could be worse?
“Well,” the latter said pensively, “they are like people anywhere. They love money, but that has always been true…People love money, no matter what it is made of, leather, paper , bronze, or gold. And they are thoughtless…but, then again, sometimes mercy enters their hearts…they are ordinary people…On the whole, they remind me of their predecessors…only the housing shortage has had a bad effect on them.” (104)
Just so- as only a housing shortage can. I sympathize. In this reworking of Faust and Pontius Pilate, Bulgakov combines life’s most ordinary details with the theater of mystery. The eponymous Master and Margarita do not even enter the novel until about one hundred pages in, it’s the Devil’s work apparently to earn the respect of the already fearful, weary denizens of Russia and establish oneself as the cynosure. But, Satan, although necessary, never was the center and finally the heart of the story unfolds:
“Just like a murderer jumps out of nowhere in an alley, love jumped out in front of us and struck us both at once! The way lightening strikes, or a Finnish knife! She, by the way, would later say that it wasn’t like that, that we had, of course, loved each other for a very long time, without knowing or even having seen each other, and that she was living with another man…and I was then…with that…what’s her name…” (116)
A Finnish knife, I love that. The Devil is a magician and a consultant, a fair dealer that understands compassion, not to mention what is perhaps particularly devastating to human beings: when Margarita helps host Satan’s ball she is given the most sage advice:
“And another thing: don’t ignore anyone! Give a little smile if you don’t have time for a word. Even the tiniest nod of your head will do. Anything you wish, but not indifference. That causes them to wither…” (224)
Bulgakov invariably speaks in code, leaving hints and tidbits throughout the novel to exact revenge, or poke fun at individuals, groups and even certain apartment buildings. Musical, literary and religious references abound, every number, name, and event is significant and adds to the fun of reading the book.
As it turns out we are, most of us, alike. Not even the Devil’s minions are immune to life’s humiliations- Trying to get seated at a restaurant frequented by writers, even they cannot escape the double whammy of bureaucratic harassment and artistic limitations:
“Are you writers?” asked the woman in turn.
“Of course we are,” replied Korovyov with dignity.
“May I see your ID’s” repeated the woman.
“My charming creature…” began Korovyoy, tenderly.
“I am not a charming creature,” interrupted the woman.
“Oh what a pity[…]But here is my point, in order to ascertain that Dostoevsky is a writer, do you really need to ask him for ID? Just look at any five pages of any of his novels, and you will surely know, even without ID, that you are dealing with a writer[…]”
“You are not Dostoevsky.”
No, but Bulgakov understands and wants to say that the possibility exists, and the way is through mercy. In his novel, that is an area of agreement between both Satan and Jesus. Compassion is the key to art, to peace, and to life.
“Follow me, reader! Who ever told you there is no such thing in the world as real, true, everlasting love? May the liar have his despicable tongue cut out!
Follow me, my reader, and only me, and I’ll show you that kind of love!”
If we are going to be followers, we might as well follow the love.
*Title from page 100-101, The Devil (as the magician Mr. Woland) is introduced onto the stage- “And so, since we all applaud both expertise and its exposé, let us welcome Mr. Woland!”
*Thanks to the wonderfully named tumblr blog wordskillunltd for the recommendation.