Saturday, June 8, 2013

From a review found on Amazon "The Master and Margarita," Mikhail Bulgakov's sparkling fantasy of Satan's visit to Moscow under the guise of a magician named Professor Woland, must rank as one of the greatest acts of literary heroism of the past century. Bulgakov wrote the novel in the late 1930s, under what was arguably the most repressive government ever on earth--the Soviet Union at the height of Stalin's power. When even the mildest criticism of the regime led to a death sentence, Bulgakov dared to place all the cruelty, venality and treachery of 1930s Russia under a microscope. The book was of course unpublishable in Bulgakov's lifetime; it only appeared in its original form nearly a half-century after the author's death. We can chuckle at the wicked tricks Woland and his retinue play on various arrogant, incompetent Soviet officials, but knowledge of the power wielded by the real-life counterparts of those officials gives the chuckles a grim undertone indeed. The titular characters don't even appear until the book is nearly half-over: the Master, a despondent writer sent to an asylum after his novel about Pontius Pilate is rejected by the Soviet writers' union, and Margarita, the beautiful woman who loves him and will literally go to Hell for his sake. Through their dealings with Woland, Bulgakov exalts the power of the imagination, the need for the spiritual dimension in life and the courage to live by one's own convictions--virtues that Stalinist Russia strove, mostly successfully, to undermine. Interspersed with the tale of Woland, the Master and Margarita are chapters from the Master's novel, depicting Pontius Pilate's dealings on the day of the Crucifixion with Yeshua Ha-Notsri (Jesus of Nazareth), Levi Matvei (St. Matthew) and Judas of Kerioth (Iscariot). The leading theme of those chapters is the essential nature of humankind: are people good, as Yeshua argues, or bad, as Pilate does? Bulgakov never answers this question, and Christian fundamentalists will be outraged to find Levi Matvei and Woland at the end to be allies, albeit uneasy ones. But in the Stalinist moral vacuum that denied the existence of both Heaven and Hell, how could they avoid working together? Bulgakov insists that people have moral choices, and that the greatest evil comes from abdicating those choices, as Stalin not only encouraged but demanded.

French naturalist Dr. Aronnax embarks on an expedition to hunt down a sea monster, only to discover instead the Nautilus, a remarkable submarine built by the enigmatic Captain Nemo. Together Nemo and Aronnax explore the underwater marvels, undergo a transcendent experience amongst the ruins of Atlantis, and plant a black flag at the South Pole. But Nemo's mission is one of revenge-and his methods coldly efficient