In an early chapter of Mikhail Bulgakov's funny and frightening novel, The Master and Margarita, written between 1928 and 1940 and now available in four different English translations, a character loses his head - literally. He slips on a Moscow street and is hit by a tram. His last thought is 'Can this be?' and his severed head then bounces away across the cobblestones. The question and the grisly performance of an answer are characteristic of this remarkable book, which Bulgakov described as his 'sunset novel'. He was writing it, without any hope or thought of publication, in a time and place where arbitrary arrests and disappearances were a common occurrence, and yet where people managed to devise for themselves, as they had to, a fable of normality. Bulgakov confronts this fable with a further fable, registers the fantastic nature of his historical world by conflating it with inventive variants on more traditional forms of fantasy, of the kind we may associate with Hoffmann or Gogol. The man who loses his head has also met the devil an hour or so earlier - a busy day for a man described as being 'unaccustomed to unusual happenings'. When one of the devil's assistants says to a young woman that he has been sent to see her 'regarding a certain small matter', she understands him immediately, albeit wrongly. Obviously he has come to arrest her. What a relief when she learns that he hasn't; better the devil than the secret police.
LRB 16 October 1997 | PDF Download