What a ludicrous experience this book was. Satan is one of the main characters, though he introduces himself as Woland. Pontius Pilate, Jesus, and the apostle Matthew are supporting characters. There is a vampire, witches, and writers. The Master shows up approximately a third of the way into the story, but Margarita doesn’t appear until over halfway through.
The Master & Margarita opens with two writers, recuperating from the spring heat on park benches, being chatted up by a stranger. An extremely odd stranger. He has come to Moscow to do an exposition on black magic as it is his area of expertise. And it isn’t long before Bulgakov reveals the stranger to be the devil. Why he has come to Moscow isn’t immediately clear. Unless it’s to wreck havoc on the Moscovites, which he does. Hundreds of people are tricked into trading possessions for worthless bits of paper, or nothing at all. An entire building sings show tunes uncontrollably, for the better part of a day. One character makes the mistake of lying to one of the devil’s attendants over the telephone, whereupon he is forbidden to lie or speak rudely to anyone – over the phone. His sporadic appearances throughout the rest of the book showcase his excruciating politeness anytime he answers a call. The madness overtaking Moscow is interspersed by excerpts of the trial and crucifixion of Jesus, mainly told from the perspective of Pontius Pilate. But beyond that, Jesus doesn’t really feature at all in the novel. It really revolves around Woland/Satan. I can see why Bulgakov didn’t name his story Satan’s Vacation. It already had enough in it to be banned for almost three decades in Russia. As if the discussion of religion wasn’t bad enough, the Moscovites don’t come off very well either. Rude, greedy, dishonest. Obsessive rules-followers. Kindness and courage are infrequent. And everywhere there’s Woland and his minions, ready to teleport someone to a distant city for the slightest rudeness. Sounds like a useful skill.
Bulgakov follows some of the traditional rules for Russian literature: add more people, give them each three proper names and a nickname or two, and add a few more people. M & M isn’t as bad as, say, War and Peace, but there were still a few times where I wanted a map and a list of characters. Especially when a nickname is entirely dissimilar to the proper name, or two characters have names that are mirror images of each other. Nikanor Ivanovich and Ivan Nikolayevich gave me no end of grief. At least getting them confused didn’t cause too many issues. It just made me confused. And I’ve read enough Russian literature that I’m used to that.