“The Master and Margarita”, Chapter I – Weekly Reads

Dear friends!

We want to refresh your memory of the events that took place at the Patriarch’s Ponds in Moscow, where the chairman of the writers’ union Mikhail Berlioz and the poet Ivan Bezdomny were talking about Jesus Christ. A stranger intervened in their conversation and asked a very bold question about who, since there is no God, controls human life. In response to the statement “man rules himself,” he predicts Berlioz’s death: his head will be cut off by a “Russian woman, a member of the Komsomol” – and quite soon, because the mysterious Annushka has already spilled the sunflower oil.


Chapter I – Never Talk to Strangers

At the sunset hour of one warm spring day two men were to be seen at Patriarch’s Ponds. The first of them–aged about forty, dressed in a greyish summer suit–was short, dark-haired, well-fed and bald. He carried his decorous pork-pie hat by the brim and his neatly shaven face was embellished by black hornrimmed spectacles of preternatural dimensions. The other, a broad-shouldered young man with curly reddish hair and a check cap pushed back to the nape of his neck, was wearing a tartan shirt, chewed white trousers and black sneakers.

The first was none other than Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, editor of a highbrow literary magazine and chairman of the management committee of one of the biggest Moscow literary clubs, known by its abbreviation as MASSOLIT; his young companion was the poet Ivan Nikolayich Poniryov who wrote under the pseudonym of Bezdomny.

Reaching the shade of the budding lime trees, the two writers went straight to a gaily-painted kiosk labelled ‘Beer and Minerals’.

There was an oddness about that terrible day in May which is worth recording : not only at the kiosk but along the whole avenue parallel to Malaya Bronnaya Street there was not a person to be seen. It was the hour of the day when people feel too exhausted to breathe, when Moscow glows in a dry haze as the sun disappears behind the Sadovaya Boulevard–yet no one had come out for a walk under the limes, no one was sitting on a bench, the avenue was empty.

‘A glass of lemonade, please,’said Berlioz.
‘There isn’t any,’replied the woman in the kiosk. For some reason the request seemed to offend her.
‘Got any beer?’ enquired Bezdomny in a hoarse voice.
‘Beer’s being delivered later this evening’ said the woman.
‘Well what have you got?’ asked Berlioz.
‘Apricot juice, only it’s warm’ was the answer.
‘All right, let’s have some.’

The apricot juice produced a rich yellow froth, making the air smell like a hairdresser’s. After drinking it the two writers immediately began to hiccup. They paid and sat down on a bench facing the pond, their backs to Bronnaya Street.Then occurred the second oddness, which affected Berlioz alone. He suddenly stopped hiccuping, his heart thumped and for a moment vanished, then returned but with a blunt needle sticking into it. In addition Berlioz was seized by a fear that was groundless but so powerful that he had an immediate impulse to run away from Patriarch’s Ponds without looking back.

Berlioz gazed miserably about him, unable to say what had frightened him. He went pale, wiped his forehead with his handkerchief and thought: ‘What’s the matter with me? This has never happened before. Heart playing tricks . . . I’m overstrained … I think it’s time to chuck everything up and go and take the waters at Kislovodsk. . . .’

Just then the sultry air coagulated and wove itself into the shape of a man – a transparent man of the strangest appearance. On his small head was a jockey-cap and he wore a short check bum-freezer made of air. The man was seven feet tall but narrow in the shoulders, incredibly thin and with a face made for derision.

Berlioz’s life was so arranged that he was not accustomed to seeing unusual phenomena. Paling even more, he stared and thought in consternation: ‘ It can’t be!’

But alas it was, and the tall, transparent gentleman was swaying from left to right in front of him without touching the ground. Berlioz was so overcome with horror that he shut his eyes. When he opened them he saw that it was all over, the mirage had dissolved, the chequered figure had vanished and the blunt needle had simultaneously removed itself from his heart.

‘The devil! ‘ exclaimed the editor. ‘ D’you know, Ivan, the heat nearly gave me a stroke just then! I even saw something like a hallucination. . . ‘ He tried to smile but his eyes were still blinking with fear and his hands trembled. However he gradually calmed down, flapped his handkerchief and with a brave enough ‘ Well, now. . . ‘ carried on the conversation that had been interrupted by their drink of apricot juice.

They had been talking, it seemed, about Jesus Christ. The fact was that the editor had commissioned the poet to write a long anti-religious poem for one of the regular issues of his magazine. Ivan Nikolayich had written this poem in record time, but unfortunately the editor did not care for it at all. Bezdomny had drawn the chief figure in his poem, Jesus, in very black colours, yet in the editor’s opinion the whole poem had to be written again.

And now he was reading Bezdomny a lecture on Jesus in order to stress the poet’s fundamental error. It was hard to say exactly what had made Bezdomny write as he had-whether it was his great talent for graphic description or complete ignorance of the subject he was writing on, but his Jesus had come out, well, completely alive, a Jesus who had really existed, although admittedly a Jesus who had every possible fault.

Berlioz however wanted to prove to the poet that the main object was not who Jesus was, whether he was bad or good, but that as a person Jesus had never existed at all and that all the stories about him were mere invention, pure myth.

The editor was a well-read man and able to make skilful reference to the ancient historians, such as the famous Philo of Alexandria and the brilliantly educated Josephus Flavius, neither of whom mentioned a word of Jesus’ existence. With a display of solid erudition, Mikhail Alexandrovich informed the poet that incidentally, the passage in Chapter 44 of the fifteenth book of Tacitus’ Annals, where he describes the execution of Jesus, was nothing but a later forgery.

The poet, for whom everything the editor was saying was a novelty, listened attentively to Mikhail Alexandrovich, fixing him with his bold green eyes, occasionally hiccuping and cursing the apricot juice under his breath.

‘There is not one oriental religion,’ said Berlioz, ‘ in which an immaculate virgin does not bring a god into the world. And the Christians, lacking any originality, invented their Jesus in exactly the same way. In fact he never lived at all. That’s where the stress has got to lie. Berlioz’s high tenor resounded along the empty avenue and as Mikhail Alexandrovich picked his way round the sort of historical pitfalls that can only be negotiated safely by a highly educated man, the poet learned more and more useful and instructive facts about the Egyptian god Osiris, son of Earth and Heaven, about the Phoenician god Thammuz, about Marduk and even about the fierce little-known god Vitzli-Putzli, who had once been held in great veneration by the Aztecs of Mexico. At the very moment when Mikhail Alexandrovich was telling the poet how the Aztecs used to model figurines of Vitzli-Putzli out of dough– the first man appeared in the avenue.

Afterwards, when it was frankly too late, various bodies collected their data and issued descriptions of this man. As to his teeth, he haid platinum crowns on his left side and gold ones on his tight. He wore an expensive grey suit and foreign shoes of the same colour as his suit. His grey beret was stuck jauntily over one ear and under his arm he carried a walking-stick with a knob in the shape of a poodle’s head. He looked slightly over forty. Crooked sort of mouth. Clean-shav-n. Dark hair. Right
eye black, left ieye for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one higher than the other. In short–a foreigner.

As he passed the bench occupied by the editor and the poet, the foreigner gave them a sidelong glance, stopped and suddenly sat down on the next bench a couple of paces away from the two friends.

‘A German,” thought Berlioz. ‘ An Englishman. …’ thought Bezdomny.
‘ Phew, he must be hot in those gloves!’

The stranger glanced round the tall houses that formed a square round the pond, from which it was obvious that he seeing this locality for the first time and that it interested him. His gaze halted on the upper storeys, whose panes threw back a blinding, fragmented reflection of the sun which was setting on Mikhail Alexandrovich for ever ; he then looked downwards to where the windows were turning darker in the early evening twilight, smiled patronisingly at something, frowned, placed his hands on the knob of his cane and laid his chin on his hands.

‘You see, Ivan,’ said Berlioz,’ you have written a marvellously satirical description of the birth of Jesus, the son of God, but the whole joke lies in the fact that there had already been a whole series of sons of God before Jesus, such as the Phoenician Adonis, the Phrygian Attis, the Persian Mithras. Of course not one of these ever existed, including Jesus, and instead of the nativity or the arrival of the Magi you should have described the absurd rumours about their arrival. But according to your
story the nativity really took place! ‘

Here Bezdomny made an effort to stop his torturing hiccups and held his breath, but it only made him hiccup more loudly and painfully. At that moment Berlioz interrupted his speech because the foreigner suddenly rose and approached the two writers. They stared at him in astonishment. ‘Excuse me, please,’ said the stranger with a foreign accent, although in correct Russian, ‘ for permitting myself, without an introduction . . . but the subject of your learned conversation was so interesting that. . .’

Here he politely took off his beret and the two friends had no alternative but to rise and bow.
‘No, probably a Frenchman.. . .’ thought Berlioz.
‘A Pole,’ thought Bezdomny.

I should add that the poet had found the stranger repulsive from first sight, although Berlioz had liked the look of him, or rather not exactly liked him but, well. . . been interested by him.
‘May I join you? ‘ enquired the foreigner politely, and as the two friends moved somewhat unwillingly aside he adroitly placed himself ‘between them and at once joined the conversation. ‘ If I am not mistaken, you were saying that Jesus never existed, were you not? ‘ he asked, turning his green left eye on Berlioz.

‘No, you were not mistaken,’ replied Berlioz courteously. ‘ I did indeed say that.’
‘Ah, how interesting! ‘ exclaimed the foreigner.
‘What the hell does he want?’ thought Bezdomny and frowned.
‘And do you agree with your friend? ‘ enquired the unknown man, turning to Bezdomny on his right.
‘A hundred per cent! ‘ affirmed the poet, who loved to use pretentious numerical expressions.
‘Astounding! ‘ cried their unbidden companion. Glancing furtively round and lowering his voice he said : ‘ Forgive me for being so rude, but am I right in thinking that you do not believe in God either? ‘ He gave a horrified look and said: ‘ I swear not to tell anyone! ‘
‘Yes, neither of us believes in God,’ answered Berlioz with a faint smile at this foreign tourist’s apprehension. ‘ But we can talk about it with absolute freedom.’

The foreigner leaned against the backrest of the bench and asked, in a voice positively squeaking with curiosity : ‘Are you . . . atheists? ‘
‘Yes, we’re atheists,’ replied Berlioz, smiling, and Bezdomny thought angrily : ‘ Trying to pick an argument, damn foreigner! ‘
‘Oh, how delightful!’ exclaimed the astonishing foreigner and swivelled his head from side to side, staring at each of them in turn.
‘In our country there’s nothing surprising about atheism,’ said Berlioz with diplomatic politeness. ‘ Most of us have long ago and quite consciously given up believing in all those fairy-tales about God.’
At this the foreigner did an extraordinary thing–he stood up and shook the astonished editor by the hand, saying as he did so :
‘Allow me to thank you with all my heart!’
‘What are you thanking him for? ‘ asked Bezdomny, blinking.
‘For some very valuable information, which as a traveller I find extremely interesting,’ said the eccentric foreigner, raising his forefinger meaningfully.

This valuable piece of information had obviously made a powerful impression on the traveller, as he gave a frightened glance at the houses as though afraid of seeing an atheist at every window.
‘No, he’s not an Englishman,’ thought Berlioz. Bezdomny thought: ‘What I’d like to know is–where did he manage to pick up such good Russian?’ and frowned again.
‘But might I enquire,’ began the visitor from abroad after some worried reflection, ‘ how you account for the proofs of the existence of God, of which there are, as you know, five? ‘
‘Alas! ‘ replied Berlioz regretfully. ‘ Not one of these proofs is valid, and mankind has long since relegated them to the archives. You must agree that rationally there can be no proof of the existence of God.’
‘Bravo!’ exclaimed the stranger. ‘ Bravo! You have exactly repeated the views of the immortal Emmanuel on that subject. But here’s the oddity of it: he completely demolished all five proofs and then, as though to deride his own efforts, he formulated a sixth proof of his own.’
‘Kant’s proof,’ objected the learned editor with a thin smile, ‘ is also unconvincing. Not for nothing did Schiller say that Kant’s reasoning on this question would only satisfy slaves, and Strauss simply laughed at his proof.’

As Berlioz spoke he thought to himself: ‘ But who on earth is he? And how does he speak such good Russian? ‘
‘Kant ought to be arrested and given three years in Solovki asylum for that ” proof ” of his! ‘ Ivan Nikolayich burst out completely unexpectedly.
‘Ivan!’ whispered Berlioz, embarrassed.

But the suggestion to pack Kant off to an asylum not only did not surprise the stranger but actually delighted him. ‘ Exactly, exactly! ‘ he cried and his green left eye, turned on Berlioz glittered. ‘ That’s exactly the place for him! I said to him myself that morning at breakfast: ” If you’ll forgive me, professor, your theory is no good. It may be clever but it’s horribly incomprehensible. People will think you’re mad.” ‘

Berlioz’s eyes bulged. ‘ At breakfast … to Kant? What is he rambling about? ‘ he thought.
‘But,’ went on the foreigner, unperturbed by Berlioz’s amazement and turning to the poet, ‘ sending him to Solovki is out of the question, because for over a hundred years now he has been somewhere far away from Solovki and I assure you that it is totally impossible to bring him back.’
‘What a pity!’ said the impetuous poet.
‘It is a pity,’ agreed the unknown man with a glint in his eye, and went on: ‘ But this is the question that disturbs me–if there is no God, then who, one wonders, rules the life of man and keeps the world in order? ‘
‘Man rules himself,’ said Bezdomny angrily in answer to such an obviously absurd question.
‘I beg your pardon,’ retorted the stranger quietly,’ but to rule one must have a precise plan worked out for some reasonable period ahead. Allow me to enquire how man can control his own affairs when he is not only incapable of compiling a plan for some laughably short term, such as, say, a thousand years, but cannot even predict what will happen to him tomorrow? ‘
‘In fact,’ here the stranger turned to Berlioz, ‘ imagine what would happen if you, for instance, were to start organising others and yourself, and you developed a taste for it–then suddenly you got. . . he, he … a slight heart attack . . . ‘ at this the foreigner smiled sweetly, as though the thought of a heart attack gave him pleasure. . . . ‘ Yes, a heart attack,’ he repeated the word sonorously, grinning like a cat, ‘ and that’s the end of you as an organiser! No one’s fate except your own interests you any longer. Your relations start lying to you. Sensing that something is amiss you rush to a specialist, then to a charlatan, and even perhaps to a fortune-teller. Each of them is as useless as the other, as you know perfectly well. And it all ends in tragedy: the man who thought he was in charge is suddenly reduced to lying prone and motionless in a wooden box and his fellow men, realising that there is no more sense to be had of him, incinerate him.

‘Sometimes it can be even worse : a man decides to go to Kislovodsk,’–here the stranger stared at Berlioz–‘ a trivial matter you may think, but he cannot because for no good reason he suddenly jumps up and falls under a tram! You’re not going to tell me that he arranged to do that himself? Wouldn’t it be nearer the truth to say that someone quite different was directing his fate?’ The stranger gave an eerie peal of laughter.

Berlioz had been following the unpleasant story about the heart attack and the tram with great attention and some uncomfortable thoughts had begun to worry him. ‘ He’s not a foreigner . . . he’s not a foreigner,’ he thought, ‘ he’s a very peculiar character . . . but I ask you, who is he? . . . ‘
‘I see you’d like to smoke,’ said the stranger unexpectedly, turning to Bezdomny, ‘ what sort do you prefer? ‘
‘Do you mean you’ve got different sorts? ‘ glumly asked the poet, who had run out of cigarettes.
‘Which do you prefer? ‘ repeated the mysterious stranger.
‘Well, then ” Our Brand “,’ replied Bezdomny, irritated.

The unknown man immediately pulled a cigarette case out of his pocket and offered it to Bezdomny.
• ” Our Brand ” . . .’

The editor and the poet were not so much surprised by the fact that the cigarette case actually contained ‘ Our Brand’ as by the cigarette case itself. It was of enormous dimensions, made of solid gold and on the inside of the cover a triangle of diamonds flashed with blue and white fire. Their reactions were different. Berlioz thought: ‘ No, he’s a foreigner.’ Bezdomny thought: ‘ What the hell is he . . .? ‘

The poet and the owner of the case lit their cigarettes and Berlioz, who did not smoke, refused.
‘I shall refute his argument by saying’ Berlioz decided to himself, ‘ that of course man is mortal, no one will argue with that. But the fact is that . . .’

However he was not able to pronounce the words before the stranger spoke: ‘Of course man is mortal, but that’s only half the problem. The trouble is that mortality sometimes comes to him so suddenly! And he cannot even say
what he will be doing this evening.’
‘What a stupid way of putting the question. ‘ thought Berlioz and objected :
‘Now there you exaggerate. I know more or less exactly what I’m going to be doing this evening. Provided of course that a brick doesn’t fall on my head in the street. . .’
‘A brick is neither here nor there,’ the stranger interrupted persuasively. ‘ A brick never falls on anyone’s head. You in particular, I assure you, are in no danger from that. Your death will be different.’
‘Perhaps you know exactly how I am going to die? ‘ enquired Berlioz with understandable sarcasm at the ridiculous turn that the conversation seemed to be taking. ‘ Would you like to tell me?’
‘Certainly,’ rejoined the stranger. He looked Berlioz up and down as though he were measuring him for a suit and muttered through his teeth something that sounded like : ‘ One, two . . . Mercury in the second house .
. . the moon waning . . . six– accident . . . evening–seven . . . ‘ then announced loudly and cheerfully : ‘ Your ‘head will be cut off!’

Bezdomny turned to the stranger with a wild, furious stare and Berlioz asked with a sardonic grin :
‘By whom? Enemies? Foreign spies? ‘
‘No,’ replied their companion, ‘ by a Russian woman, a member of the Komsomol.’
‘Hm,’ grunted Berlioz, upset by the foreigner’s little joke. ‘ That, if you don’c mind my saying so, is most improbable.’
‘I beg your pardon,’ replied the foreigner, ‘ but it is so. Oh yes, I was going to ask you–what are you doing this evening, if it’s not a secret?’
‘It’s no secret. From here I’m going home, and then at ten o’clock this evening there’s a meeting at the massolit and I shall be in the chair.’
‘No, that is absolutely impossible,’ said the stranger firmly.
‘Because,’ replied the foreigner and frowned up at the sky where, sensing the oncoming cool of the evening, the birds were flying to roost, ‘Anna has already bought the sunflower-seed oil, in fact she has not only bought it, but has already spilled it. So that meeting will not take place.’

With this, as one might imagine, there was silence beneath the lime trees.
‘Excuse me,’ said Berlioz after a pause with a glance at the stranger’s jaunty beret, ‘ but what on earth has sunflower-seed oil got to do with it… and who is Anna? ‘
‘I’ll tell you what sunflower-seed oil’s got to do with it,’ said Bezdomny suddenly, having obviously decided to declare war on their uninvited companion. ‘ Have you, citizen, ever had to spend any time in a mental hospital? ‘
‘Ivan! ‘ hissed Mikhail Alexandrovich.

But the stranger was not in the least offended and gave a cheerful laugh. ‘ Yes, I have, I have, and more than once! ‘ he exclaimed laughing, though the stare that he gave the poet was mirthless. ‘ Where haven’t I been! My only regret is that I didn’t stay long enough to ask the professor what schizophrenia was. But you are going to find that out from him yourself, Ivan Nikolayich!’
‘How do you know my name? ‘
‘My dear fellow, who doesn’t know you? ‘ With this the foreigner pulled the previous day’s issue of The Literary Gazette out of his pocket and Ivan Nikolayich saw his own picture on the front page above some of his own verse. Suddenly what had delighted him yesterday as proof of his fame and popularity no longer gave the poet any pleasure at all.
‘I beg your pardon,’ he said, his face darkening. ‘ Would you excuse us for a minute? I should like a word or two with my friend.’
‘Oh, with pleasure! ‘ exclaimed the stranger. ‘ It’s so delightful sitting here under the trees and I’m not in a hurry to go anywhere, as it happens.’

‘Look here, Misha,’ whispered the poet when he had drawn Berlioz aside. ‘ He’s not just a foreign tourist, he’s a spy. He’s a Russian emigre and he’s trying to catch us out. Ask him for his papers and then he’ll go away . . .’
‘Do you think we should? ‘ whispered Berlioz anxiously, thinking to himself–‘ He’s right, of course . . .’
‘Mark my words,’ the poet whispered to him. ‘ He’s pretending to be an idiot so that he can trap us with some compromising question. You can hear how he speaks Russian,’ said the poet, glancing sideways and watching to see that the stranger was not eavesdropping. ‘ Come on, let’s arrest him and then we’ll get rid of him.’

The poet led Berlioz by the arm back to the bench. The unknown man was no longer sitting on it but standing beside it, holding a booklet in a dark grey binding, a fat envelope made of good paper and a visiting card.
‘Forgive me, but in the heat of our argument I forgot to introduce myself. Here is my card, my passport and a letter inviting me to come to Moscow for consultations,’ said the stranger gravely, giving both writers a piercing stare.

The two men were embarrassed. ‘ Hell, he overheard us . . . ‘ thought Berlioz, indicating with a polite gesture that there was no need for this show of documents. Whilst the stranger was offering them to the editor, the poet managed to catch sight of the visiting card. On it in foreign lettering was the word ‘ Professor ‘ and the initial letter of a surname which began with a ‘W’.

‘Delighted,’ muttered the editor awkwardly as the foreigner put his papers back into his pocket. Good relations having been re-established, all three sat down again on the bench.
‘So you’ve been invited here as a consultant, have you, professor? ‘ asked Berlioz.
‘Yes, I have.’
‘Are you German? ‘ enquired Bezdomny.
‘I? ‘ rejoined the professor and thought for a moment. ‘ Yes, I suppose I am German. . . . ‘ he said.
‘You speak excellent Russian,’ remarked Bezdomny.
‘Oh, I’m something of a polyglot. I know a great number of languages,’ replied the professor.
‘And what is your particular field of work? ‘ asked Berlioz.
‘I specialise in black magic.’
‘Like hell you do! . . . ‘ thought Mikhail Alexandrovich.
‘And … and you’ve been invited here to give advice on that? ‘ he asked with a gulp.
‘Yes,’ the professor assured him, and went on : ‘ Apparently your National Library has unearthed some original manuscripts of the ninth-century necromancer Herbert Aurilachs. I have been asked to decipher them. I am the only specialist in the world.’
‘Aha! So you’re a historian? ‘ asked Berlioz in a tone of considerable relief and respect.
‘ Yes, I am a historian,’ adding with apparently complete inconsequence, ‘ this evening a historic event is going to take place here at Patriarch’s Ponds.’

Again the editor and the poet showed signs of utter amazement, but the professor beckoned to them and when both had bent their heads towards him he whispered :’Jesus did exist, you know.’
‘Look, professor,’ said Berlioz, with a forced smile, ‘ With all respect to you as a scholar we take a different attitude on that point.’
‘It’s not a question of having an attitude,’ replied the strange professor. ‘ He existed, that’s all there is to it.’
‘But one must have some proof. . . . ‘ began Berlioz.
‘There’s no need for any proof,’ answered the professor. In a low voice, his foreign accent vanishing altogether, he began : ‘It’s very simple–early in the morning on the fourteenth of the spring month of Nisan the Procurator of Judaea, Pontius Pilate, in a white cloak lined with blood-red…

Source: The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov. Translated from the russian by Michael Glenny. Published by Collins and Harvill Press, London, 1967