Having read a bunch of reviews before starting to read this book, I had some idea of what to expect, but there were still plenty of surprises in store for me. From the beginning, we are introduced to a character named Mr. Woland and it quickly becomes apparent that this man has supernatural powers. People who come in contact with him seem to die or end up in an insane asylum, and when he hosts a Black Magic show at the variety theater, there are 2,000 spectators who all witness impossible feats of magic, though it is later agreed upon by the authorities that they were all victims of mass hypnosis. It is hard to figure out what is “true” fiction and what is “fabricated” fiction in this novel, because Bulgakov seems to have amused himself with keeping the reader guessing as to what parts of the novel actually happened within the story and which parts were figments of a characters’ imagination.
Bulgakov died before finishing this book, which he worked on for many long years, not imagining once that it would ever be published, let alone become a worldwide sensation. Having written the better part of the novel in the Stalinist Soviet Union of the 1930’s, Bulgakov rightfully feared reprisal for expressing his own views on the regime. This novel, constructed with layers of meaning, enabled him to mask his anti-Soviet and anti-Stalinist criticism and explore religious and Romantic themes which had fallen out of favour in Communist Russia. There is much material here that might not be deciphered by the average reader, unless he or she had a thorough understanding of the conditions and politics during that era. There are also clever plays on words that were inevitably lost in translation, and had it not been for the annotations and afterword provided in this edition, most of these references would definitely have been lost on me.
On first reading, a person might easily think that the main character is the Woland/Devil character, since we are only introduced to the Master and Margarita further on in the book. The goings on of the Devil and his retinue are interspersed with the Master’s story about Pontius Pilate’s encounter with Jesus. There are many themes in this book: religion and the gospel, references to Faust, what consists true art, how subjective good and evil are, and so on. Personally, I more than anything enjoyed the antics of Woland and his entourage and especially that of Behemoth the giant talking cat, who is the cause for much hilarious destruction and mayhem.