Read from March 5th to 19th 2013
'When I emerged into the world clutching my novel, my life came to an end…'
“If the whole world I once could see
On free soil stand, with the people free
Then to the moment might I say,
Linger awhile… so fair thou art.”
“At the sunset hour of one warm spring day“ some time in the early 20th century, here comes Devil to play havoc with the Muscovite literary and artistic life. It was the morning of the same day, two thousand years earlier, when Pontius Pilate had confronted Yeshua Ha-Notsri and decided it was too dangerous not to let him die. Or so the story goes, says the Devil. The story which Matthew the Levite recorded and the Master imagined, the story which Margarita saved and Ivan dreamt. The Story which this book is about.
Because, in my opinion, despite the title with its obvious reference to Goethe’s masterpiece, the artist’s condition is a secondary theme, as complexly developed as it is, with its political, autobiographical and literary implications. The political environment, shown in the form of an ingenious slapstick, brings out some grotesquely hilarious characteristics of the communist society and its value scale (oh, so familiar to me!), where the official writers are members of a privileged society significantly named MASSOLIT (literature for the masses, I guess) and where those who try forbidden subjects are severely reprimanded (like Ivan) or morally destroyed (like the Master), where having foreign currency is a capital sin and stale fish is considered second-grade fresh (no wonder this expression became a golden saying, together with “manuscripts don’t burn”). Even the Walpurgis Night was inspired (according to Wikipedia), by an opulent ball that some ambassador organized in the Moscow of that time. The autobiographical aspect can be found both in the odyssey of “The Master and Margarita” manuscript, destroyed by Bulgakov at first only to realize later that “…paper that has been written over in ink doesn't burn easily”, and in the political censure he, like his hero, suffered from. And finally, there is the intertextual dialogue with Goethe, Dostoyevsky, Tolstoy and of course, the Bible.
All this forms the background, a very elaborated one, true, but background nonetheless. The main theme could be found while answering an apparent simple question: who is the author of Pontius Pilate’s story? The answer should not cover only the authorship issue, but also the complex relationship between the author, his work and its receiver.
'When I emerged into the world clutching my novel, my life came to an end,' confesses the Master. And not necessarily because of the official rejection of his work, but because it was not his anymore; it became the Devil’s 2000-year-old proof, it became another artist’s dream, it became the Narrator’s pretext to create the Master and an exemplary story for the other characters to identify themselves with. A new-born story as old as the time, evading history, creating its own reality that remodels when it doesn’t simply swallow the historical one. A masterpiece whose author is an unnamed Master, a Master who doesn’t know anymore whether it’s him who invented it or it was Devil who whispered it to him one day at the Patriarch’s Ponds, when his name was Ivan and had nightmares about an execution he commanded as Pontius Pilate who is now walking on a moon beam with Yeshua Ha-Notsri, who both are the Master who found refuge in limbo, the Dantesque Purgatory of the collective memory.
A never-ending spiral where reader and author and characters are one, recreating Art with every writing, every reading, every interpretation, where a cowardly cruel Pontius Pilate (according to History) can be redeemed with a single glorious sentence, spoken by the Master at Woland’s suggestion, suggested by Matthew the Levite, Yeshua’s messenger:
'You are free! Free! He is waiting for you!'
Art released into the world in spite of every attempt to be hidden, diminished or destroyed. World where, He, the reader, the inflexible Pilate, is waiting to be liberated:
He had been freed, just as he had set free the character he had created. His hero had now vanished irretrievably into the abyss; on the night of Sunday, the day of the Resurrection, pardon had been granted to the astrologer's son, fifth Procurator of Judaea, the cruel Pontius Pilate.