prereading

June 2nd, 2009

Yesterday morning I finished up class, gathered up my stuff, and prepared to head back over to the office. I put my sunglasses on so I wouldn’t be blinded as soon as I stepped outside. As I did, one of my students said:

“好像黑社会老大”- looks like a triad boss.

My sunglasses are new, my haircut even newer, the students are still making comments….

Then the same student called me “大哥”- big brother, the appropriate term of address for a higher-up in the triad world.

This afternoon I went into the “new” (as in I watched it being built when I lived opposite the south gate, but until today had no reason to visit it) building opposite the south gate with instructions to go to the 5th floor and pick up a package that had been couriered to me. Saw myself reflected in the doors of the lift and thought, yeah, I can see the triad boss resemblance (apart from the obvious skin and hair colour issues).

It’s been a long series of those kind of days you enjoy for the weather, but which leave you petrified for the near future of our water supply. Hard, hot blue skies, sun baking down, occasionally, like yesterday- and this afternoon clouds building up to the west and north vaguely threatening thunder storms, but not delivering. The kind of weather when fans are essential, but none of my classrooms have such necessities. Got home after class and immediately received a message: “Go to the main building (the one opposite the south gate), 5th floor, pick up your couriered package”.

Odd. The address I’d given would normally see mail arrive at the front desk of the Foreign Students’ Building, said building being responsible for all issues (except utilities) associated with foreign teachers’ accomodation, mail included. Well, I guess a package from Japan addressed to a Kiwi teacher could flip out bureaucrats. Whatever, I want what’s in the package, so off I go.

It’s still early enough in the summer that shadow provides relief, so it was a journey constantly flitting from blessedly shaded and bearable to heat beating at me from every direction, punctuated by one of the gardeners spraying his nasty smelling chemicals on a few trees at roughly the halfway point. The unshaded portions of the journey were a mixture of the sun beating down from on high and asphalt darkly glowering, radiating heat, or concrete reflecting it from below.

Approaching the building I realised a new problem: It’s one of those weird modern buildings, y’know, where you can’t tell from the outside, especially if you walk around and look at it from every ground-level angle, which is the ground floor or first floor or basement or… shit, is that part even part of the same building? On it’s southern face is a grand ramp circling round a stair case, so the Big Men can zoom up to the main door in their fancy cars while us mere plebs humbly stumble up the stairs in awe. So I walked up the ramp. The wrong way. Like the few heading in the same direction but ahead of me.

So I collected my package and headed back home. This time I took the stairs. Taking the fancy-pants car ramp the wrong way didn’t seem anywhere as much fun on the way down as it did on the way up, so I took the very repititive stairs down to the forecourt that seemed designed to disorient. But hitting bottom I looked up rather than trying to decipher the curves of paving stone beneath me. The colleagues who had provided a welcome stop in relative shade on the way there had left, which was probably for the best, considering the shade in question was of immature trees and the sun was sinking below even their meagre efforts to shade.

Across the bridge, into the welcome cool of my building’s stairwell, home, and… What’s all the fuss about?

The Master and Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov

so now you understand… or probably not. The Master and Margarita I would rate as the greatest of all Russian novels, with the two provisos that:

  1. I have certainly not read every Russian novel; and
  2. I generally don’t like Russian novels. Russia is great for short fiction- no, Russia is bloody awesome for short fiction. But not for novels, not in my (admittedly limited) experience.

Having said that, right from the first time I read it, The Master and Margarita quite simply blew me away. A horrible cliche, I know, but that’s what happened. It’s a novel of extraordinary clarity, depth, directness and mysteriousness, the kind of novel you keep coming back to discovering new angles each time.

So what is this novel? It’s been several years- seven, at least- since I last read it, and I’m not sure I can remember much, but it has left such an indelible impression. Trouble with impressions is they don’t give themselves easily to words.

I remember clearly- I think- the Biblical scenes. Jesus up against Pontius Pilate. But there was something different, something that didn’t quite gel with my rather conservative, bordering on evangelical upbringing, something in the way Jesus’ trial was presented. I could never put my finger on it, the facts of the case seemed the same, but there was something in the presentation that leant it all an air of the surreal. A feeling of tropical desert heat, a sun like today’s in Beijing, but fiercer, brighter, sharper, heat so hard it was chipping at the stone walls of Pilate’s palace. And a languor one could never find this far from the equator, a languor that naturally leads to the stubborn… not zealotry… acceptance? still not right…

And then, from what I remember, the novel moves to Moscow, the Moscow of Stalin’s days, perhaps a little earlier, the time of a poet named Homeless- bezdomny-, when all was normal until the Devil showed up. This devil isn’t your lazy assumption, red, horned, tailed, bearing some kind of trident as red as himself, goatee, but something greater, more ancient, more evil, and yet…

…as the novel progresses, one gets the impression that all this evil the Devil gets up to is an integral part of God’s will. It’s a similar impression to what I got from Tolkien’s Silmarillion, but from an opposite direction. It’s an intriguing idea: Could an infinite, omniscient, omnipotent God have been using the Devil- with the Devil’s knowledge and implicit consent (as if the Devil has a choice)- to further His own purpose, right from the beginning of Creation?

And yet, of course, this novel was written in the depths of Stalin’s reign, and comes with all the questions that raises.

And the autobiographical aspect? The burning of the manuscript? The psych ward?

An intriguing novel, in other words, and one I look forward to diving back into.

3 Responses to “prereading”

  1. Charlie Says:

    I’ve read just about every Russian novel translated into English and The Master and Margarita is the greatest. “It’s too late, she’s already bought the oil.”

  2. Ji Village News Says:

    I have never heard of this. I will see if my library has a copy. Thanks for pointing it out!

  3. wangbo Says:

    Charlie, absolutely, it’s definitely the greatest Russian novel.

    Mr Ji, what Charlie said. I hope you find a copy in your library.