Oct 21, 2016

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

This is Harry Potter's favorite book. Well, Daniel Radcliffe's, anyway, along with a whole host of other celebrities and luminaries. Penguin Classic's stunning 50th Anniversary edition was too pretty to pass up, and the book's cache too ubiquitous to ignore. This edition is a new translation by powerhouse Russian translating team Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, though I recently read a criticism of their translating skills that was too convincing to ignore. I read their version of Anna Karenina and found it quite readable. But this particular article (no chance of me remembering who wrote it or where it was published, of course) put certain passages therein alongside another translator's earlier effort, and it was impossible to deny that Pevear and Volokhonsky's utterly lacked the lyricism of the earlier translation.

All this is to say, I struggled to get into the writing and I want to blame it on the translators, but of course, not speaking Russian myself, can't read the original and prove to you that my struggle was just that. Language barrier aside, it's a hell of a satire, and I can see why it's so well-loved. Gotta love a book where the Devil is the good guy! As to who the bad guy is, well, pick your poison: bureaucracy, Communism, mob mentality, writers and artists, fear of political retribution, vanity. There's plenty for everyone here, a smorgasbord of derision. Interspersed amidst this bombardment are a few chapters of the eponymous master's book about Pontius Pilate. These chapters are, truly, stunning. What a talent was Bulgakov! Narrative description, which often bores me, here pulls you down into that hated city, Yershalaim, sitting with that poor man forced to kill a man he wants to save him, with only his loyal dog to love, surrounded by forces he can control only enough to doom himself. As fun as the Moscow chapters are, I hungered for Pontius Pilate and his burden. That Bulgakov's writing is skillful is an understatement that does these chapters no justice. A master, indeed.

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