Speech by Dr. Uther Charlton-Stevens about Magic Realism in the Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog

16 August 2019

In the world of literature several authors have acquired great fame or infamy for works of ‘magic realism’. Gabriel García Márquez has received the most praise for this kind of writing, including the Nobel Prize. While Salman Rushdie has received the most censure, including threats to his life. Perhaps no one would envy Rushdie, but it is a shame that Bulgakov has not had as much recognition as a magic realist. But what is ‘magic realism’? Matthew Strecher has described it as “what happens when a highly detailed, realistic setting is invaded by something too strange to believe”. This is surely a perfect definition of Bulgakov’s most famous works, especially the Master and Margarita and Heart of a Dog. It is their juxtaposition of what would have seemed every day to Soviet citizens at the time they were written – such as a walk in Patriarch’s pond or officious building management committees – with the arrival of supernatural, magical, religious, and science fiction type elements, that makes these books so sublime. The absurdity of what is very real is exposed by the logicality of what is unreal, or believed by most of us to be unreal. The elaborately crafted descriptions of the mundane provide the ideal backdrop for us to suspend our disbelief when the otherworldly intrudes. And the combination of these two elements furnishes a veritable banquet of objects for satire.

The world the characters think they inhabit does not come off very well from the exchange, but in Begemot we see how the supernatural also has its comic side. Perhaps the funniest incident is when this large black cat seeks to board a tram – a normal everyday act. He even attempts to pay his fare. The conductor is clearly disconcerted, but expressing no real appreciation of the strangeness of a cat who carries the right change for the tram fare, she exclaims that cats are not allowed on the tram. This may be so, it may be that people are not allowed to bring their pets on the tram, but it must be her first experience of a cat attempting to board and pay as a passenger in its own right. It is perhaps equally amusing to us when Begemot sits on the back of the tram like a street urchin, and that like any purposeful being about town, he knows when to get off in order to reach his destination.

Sometimes the fantastical characters themselves expose the absurdity of everyday occurrences, or overly officious Soviet behaviour. Such as when Korovyev and Begemot visit the restaurant of the writer’s club, but are stopped by a woman at the entrance whose job it is to write the names of everyone entering the restaurant in a ledger. Even the Hong Kong Club does not go that far! The two respond by saying that “if you wanted to make sure that Dostoyevsky was a writer, would you really ask him for his membership card? Why, you only have to take any five pages of one of his novels and you won’t need a membership card, anyway.” The rule being applied, it is suggested, is stranger than the cat to whom it is being applied. It is no more strange in that light, perhaps, that a being who combines dog and man, should prove to be the most proficient at following all these bureaucratic rules, but even adapting them to his own purposes – weaponising red-tape against those who seek to thwart his desires for creature comforts and stability.

The humanised-dog, Comrade Sharik, or Comrade Furballov in one hilarious English translation, and Poligraph Poligraphovich Sharikov as he opts to be called, becomes much less affable than he was while merely a dog. But he still understands all too well what makes for the good life it seems. He has no inner need to seek out paradox, he simply wants his place to stay warm and his food to eat. Cats are a bit more eccentric, and likely to seek out dubious pleasures. The cat and the dog might be taken to symbolise alternate personality archetypes and conflicting impulses within the human psyche. It is interesting that Bulgakov here references Dostoevsky’s writing, because it is in the Brothers Karamazov where we find similar fantastical and religious elements to parallel those of the Master and Margarita, although in a wholly serious tone. In the monologue directed to the Grand Inquisitor and the man presumed to be Jesus, and in the demonic visitation which may be simply a fevered dream of Ivan Karamazov. In Bulgakov it is a presumed devil, perhaps the devil, who recounts the dialogue between Christ and Pilot, and that story within a story is the most serious and deeply meditated part of the book. Whereas in Dostoevsky’s story within a story the Grand Inquisitor builds his meditation on power and what humans really desire by reference to the three temptations which the Devil placed before Christ – authority; miracle; mystery – earthly bread, the satisfaction of hunger; proof of God and his son through an overwhelming demonstration of miraculous power; and the sword of Caesar, the creation of a kingdom or an empire on earth.

One common theme here is that Bulgakov’s Devil and Dostoevsky’s Christ are both returning to earth after centuries to witness what has become of man in the intervening time. For Bulgakov’s Devil humans are no better than they were, just as venal and superficial as they have always been. Grasping for handbags and glad-rags, picking up rouble banknotes as they flutter in the air and settle in the gutter. The system of their belief – whether it is Christian faith, or atheistic socialism, whether mystical or scientific, whether aimed at redemption and salvation of the soul, or progress and material wellbeing for the body – has no bearing on reshaping the fundamental nature of human character. In that sense this new future soon loses its interest for him, for it is much like before, fashions and outward forms may have changed, but the people are still the same people. Dostoevsky’s Christ is the most eloquently silent man to have ever existed. He says nothing. His facial expressions reveal nothing. He gazes with pale eyes, and reacts only with a single act near the end, a kiss such as that bestowed on him by Judas. But what does he see, what does he hear? As he listens to that masterful theological treatise on free will, and its undesirability.

The Catholic Church that emerges from this speech is one that takes upon itself the burden of free will and gives people what they really want. It is much like what Bulgakov’s humanised dog wants – not freedom, but safety, a comfortable cage devoid of the need to think or to doubt, where food and human wants are met, and stability and security come by accepting a slavish condition through submitting to higher authority. Though Dostoyevsky wrote and died a man of the 19th Century, and never lived to see the Revolution in Russia, did he not say as much about the kind of state power it would create as the Soviet generation of Russian writers? But as his Grand Inquisitor also says “Man was created a rebel; and how can rebels be happy?” In the end the rebels will become obedient, claims the Inquisitor. But this is the hollow part of an otherwise frighteningly compelling thesis.

In another work, Notes on Underground, Dostoevsky is, I think, expressing, something closer to his own conclusion – that even in the face of Utopia, man would sabotage the ideal system, merely to be free to rebel against perfection. That represents the rejection of any system which seeks to place people in the position of well-fed but caged dogs. Dostoyevsky’s rebellious anarchic Man and Bulgakov’s slavish and officious Dog are two different creatures. Begemot, like any other cat, is temperamentally more of a rebel, yet more contented and at ease with himself than either. Dostoevsky is not a magic realist, for Ivan Karamzov says to his devil “Not for a single moment do I take you for the real truth… You are a lie, you are my illness, you are a ghost. Only I don’t know how to destroy you, and I’ll have to suffer through it for a while. You are my hallucination. You are the embodiment of myself, but of just one side of me… of my thoughts and feelings, but only the most loathsome and stupid of them.” And lest we get too drawn into Dostoevsky’s orbit at a Bulgakov society event, I should point out here that Bulgakov is much the better humourist! He also goes much better with dinner.

The individuals in Bulgakov’s asylum are agitated by the truth of the things they have seen, however much they are disbelieved. Leaving us to question whether the sanest people in the society are in fact those it confines to the asylum. If the world is absurd, if the supernatural actually intrudes within it, then these inmates are the only ones to see the truth, to see the strange reality that Bulgakov presents to us. The darker parts of Bulgakov’s comedy, sometimes referred to as a kind of ‘grotesque’ that emerges from the juxtapositions I’ve outlined, are always balanced with levity. For as his Devil reminds us darkness and light can only exist alongside one another. His answer to Utopianism is more succinct than Dostoevsky’s – “Do you want to strip the earth of all trees and living things just because of your fantasy of enjoying naked light?”

Dr. Uther Charlton-Stevens