Details: (c) Mikhail Bulgakov 1966-7; Pub 1997 Penguin Books; translated Richard Pevear & Larissa Volokhonsky; ISBN 0-14-118014-5
Verdict: The Master and Margarita is engaging and utterly surreal.
Reasons for reading it: I've seen various comments on my friends list which intrigued me. coalescent first brought it to my attention, and lisekit enthused about it recently.
How it came into my hands: lethargic_man lent it to me.
The Master and Margarita pulls off the very unusual accomplishment of being successfully surreal. It makes just about enough sense to hold my attention and made me feel I was reading a story, and it's genuinely humourous rather than merely silly. A lot of the humour is very dark, there's a lot of violence and of course the background of the repressive Soviet state with its secret police and informers and so on. But despite the disturbing undercurrents, it really is a romp, funny and zany.
I didn't quite understand how the secondary story about Pontius Pilate fits in with the main narrative, but it certainly works well. (The mangling of Hebrew words, names and places irked me a little, but they've been through three languages at least so I shouldn't really complain.)
Actually, the most surprising thing about tMaM was that the basic narrative is really quite conventional, despite the utter weirdness of the setting. The devil can only harm those who collude in their own destruction. Jesus is merciful and can get people to heaven and promotes true spirituality over organized religion. The hero is saved from the devil because he is truly loved by a virtous woman; this is really the last novel I would have expected to turn into a Tammuz myth!
I'm not crazy about this translation. It feels clunky; I was never unaware that I was reading translation, which is never a good sign, and it's hopelessly over-footnoted. Most of the time I could quite happily just ignore the footnotes, but I'm still a little annoyed that they existed. I also had the same problem that I always have with Russian literature, namely that everyone has three different names and I couldn't keep the characters straight in my head. I have no doubt that I missed whole layers of literary and political allusion, but I enjoyed the book for itself anyway.