“The Master and Margarita” (Penguin Classics) by Mikhail Bulgakov – Lost in Translation?

This is my review of The Master and Margarita (Penguin Classics) by Mikhail Bulgakov.

My two star rating is for the over-literal i.e. often jarring and oddly worded translation by Pevear and Volkhonsky. Although I am not a fan of magic realism, I was at first prepared to make an effort with this highly praised classic: the tale of the havoc wrought on the unsuspecting inhabitants of Moscow by the Devil and his acolytes – including an outsize, vodka-swilling, talking cat. With his powers to hear people’s private conversations and inner thoughts, and prey on their weaknesses of greed, envy and fear, not to mention predicting and causing brutal death, only to bring some victims back to life on a whim, the Devil soon has people carted off to the lunatic asylum in droves, including the odd mortal who tries to take a stand. I gathered that all this is meant to be a satire on the evils of Stalin’s regime. Perhaps it was very brave of Bulgakov to write it (only it was not published until after his early death), and also innovative for its day, but it is in the main too dated and stylised to move me. For a reason I do not fully understand, the story is intercut with accounts of the final sentencing by Pilate and crucifixion of Christ, which I gather are extracts from the novel written, but destroyed by a character called “the Master”, after they have been rejected by the publishers whom Bulgakov also wished to parody. Although I found these extracts quite striking and memorable, but am not sure of their relevance to the overall story.

At first, the bizarre chain of events seemed quite witty and entertaining but by about halfway through I decided I could not stand any more and a quick skip through to the end suggested that the book “does not improve” or add to what I had already grasped. So, I took the rare action of abandoning it but have made a note to seek out a better translation, which captures more of what I imagine to be Bulgakov’s clever humour and wry wit, for a later date.

⭐⭐ 2 Stars

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