And you always knew cats were evil
Although I find myself torn hither and fro by my various summer projects (knitting, planning classes, researching a potential article and a conference presentation), summer reading lists wait for no man, or woman. To follow the novel that started off with the murder of an innocent poodle, I’m reading The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov, which features a sinister cat. A huge, sinister cat that uses its paws as hands, pays streetcar fare, smokes, talks, and, not coincidentally is the consort of Satan himself.
The Master and Margarita is set in Moscow in the 1930s and was unpublishable in the Soviet Union in Bulgakov’s lifetime. In the first half of the novel (the half I have read to date), Bulgakov directs his scathing, allegorical critique at Soviet bureaucracy, at the horrible housing shortages of the 20s and 30s, and at the petty greediness of the common man, out to take care of number one in a society and economy that privileged and rewarded the insider while paying lipservice to the communist ideal of equality among comrade citizens.
The vehicle for this social critique: Satan pays Moscow a visit, in the guise of a professor of black magic. He brings with him a “choirmaster” and the aforementioned monstrous kitty. As a group they swindle, torment, and murder, as well as lay bare the greed and envy of the Muscovites with whom they come in contact. The novel skillfully deploys elements of the Faust legend (via Goethe”s drama, which provides the epigraph, and Gounod’s opera). But instead of examining a man, or a society, that has knowingly made a pact with the devil for their own dubious gain, Bulgakov explores what happens when a society that has declared there is no God and no heaven (and therefore also no Satan and no hell) comes into contact with Lucifer himself.
Braided into the narrative alongside the Faustian elements is the parallel story of Pontius Pilate and the crucifixion of Jesus, an event which the devil, having witnessed personally, relates to two literary men on the day of his arrival in Moscow.
I must confess that what intrigues me most about the first half of this novel (and I haven’t even mentioned who the Master is–suffice it to say that he’s in a nut house) is its puzzle-like quality. Being familiar with the Faust legend, via Goethe, I find it entertaining to figure out the parallels. Mephistopheles showed himself to Goethe’s Faust first in the guise of a poodle–here we have a cat and Woland, the devil, confesses, “Yes, I suppose I am a German.” Margarita, whom I may or may not have encountered in the novel in the guise of an undead woman (she hasn’t been named yet but has appeared repeatedly, the narrator always remarks on the scar along her neck) surely refers in some way to Faust’s poor Gretchen; Greta, Gretel, Gretchen all being diminutives for the German name Margarete. Gretchen was offered up to Faust by Mephistopheles; she was one of the earthly pleasures he gained in his bargain with the devil. At the end of the drama, Gretchen is suffering in prison, where she lands as punishment for drowning her newborn child. By announcing her salvation at the very end of the drama, the play suggests she has died as a result of her (and Faust’s) crimes. To have her serve as Satan’s minion in 1930s Russia would be a perversion of Goethe’s Faust, but certainly fits the mood of Bulgakov’s withering commentary–we are none of us free from sin. Where rationality would deny a heaven, it has no means of protecting you from hell.