A novel written under Stalin, published samisdat in the 50s and released to the world in my lifetime, in which Satan, Jesus and a Soviet-style writing authority all figure. You can see why some, if not most, readers assume this to be some kind of anti-Totalitarian allegory. If it were just that nobody would bother with it now. It wouldn’t be so popular in present-day Moscow that, in 2010 when the forest fires surrounded the city after a prolonged, unnatural-seeming heat-wave, the newspapers were making jokes about cats and broomsticks. You’d not see things like this. If this had just been Stalinism’s ba-ad, M’kay? it would have joined Solzhenitsin garthering dust in second-hand shops.
Neither is it uncomplicatedly about religion. yes, Satan’s there, and Jesus, and the authorities take a dim view of a book that claims Jesus was just some bloke that got mythologised a bit after his death because he did a lot of good and made people feel better. That’s worse, to these drab jobsworths, than claiming the usual Son-of-God/ Water-into-wine/ died-for-our-sins-and-came-back stuff. Satan isn’t on the side of the authorities (although a big bipedal cat is sort of a liaison between them) and Margarita, the forlorn devotee of the author identified as ‘the Master’, becomes a witch and is granted wishes by the (ahem) man of wealth and taste who’s pleased to meet her. And, yes, the Master, like Bulgakov, tried to burn his manuscript. So some people see it as a roman a clef with the characters all representing real people the author knew (except, maybe, Jesus).
In fact, the allegory, if such it is, is so obscure that it’s easy to imagine Bulgakov fleeing to America and writing almost the same book about New York or Miami. If you doubt this, read it and then investigate Confederacy of Dunces by John Kennedy Toole, also on our shelves. Although it officially predates the Magic Realist movement, it has a lot of features in common, the weird time-frame, the mix of fantasy and closely-observed detail, the blurring of history, myth and dream and the use of the imagination as a tool of resistance to oppression. It fed into the movement as it developed in the 60s and 70s, especially in Soviet satellite countries. Without it, we might not have had Milan Kundera, the Strugastky brothers or Stanislav Lem.
By Tat Wood