June 22nd, 2009
Civilisation: A summer Sunday afternoon in the shade of mature trees with a good book and an ice-cold bottle of beer.
In this case the book was Mikhail Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, translated by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the Penguin Classics’ edition of 1997. Between bouts of people watching, contemplation and daydreaming, I read the first few chapters yesterday afternoon. Berlioz and Homeless’s (yes, they translate the poet’s penname, bezdomny) meeting with a mysterious stranger by the Patriarch’s Ponds (Bulgakov took care to use the pre-revolutionary name), the prediction of Berlioz’s decapitation, a wild, crazy discussion on Atheism, the stranger’s proof of the historical existence of Jesus by eye-witness account, cut to….
…wait, this isn’t quite the Jesus of the Bible, nor is this quite Jerusalem, this is Yeshua who is brought before Pilate in Yershalaim. And is this the same Pilate? This is a suffering Pilate, one struck by what he calls “hemicrania”, a punishing pain crushing half his head, stuck in the stifling heat of a city he loathes on the day before Passover having to rule on the death sentence passed by the Sanhedrin on a young man, who…
…this Yeshua is an odd young man, about 27, from Nazareth, an orphan who thinks perhaps his father may have been Syrian, a speaker of Aramaic, Greek and Latin, who gave up whatever life he had before to wander the Holy Land preaching. But is this Yeshua naif or intelligent? He insists all people are good. Some are unhappy or angry or hurt and therefore do bad things, but they are all inherently good. Even Mark Ratslayer, the centurion with a fearsome reputation who tortures him, is good. Judas of Kiriath, his betrayer, is also good. Presumably Matthew Levi, who decided to follow this Yeshua and write all about him in his parchment book is also good, although Yeshua insists that what is inscribed on this parchment is entirely false and the cause of the great misunderstanding that lead to his trial by the Sanhedrin and death sentence for inciting the people to tear down the Temple.
Pilate’s reaction to Yeshua is both troubled and troubling. On the one hand, this clearly highly intelligent young man fascinates Pilate, and he considers a verdict of not guilty by reason of insanity and confining him to Pilate’s own house. It is not made explicit, but I’m left with the impression Pilate wants to hear and discuss more Yeshua’s views. On the other hand, Pilate seems to want to take out his pent up anger and frustration and the pain of this headache on this convenient scapegoat. In the end he confirms the death sentence because Yeshua’s belief that one utopian day all people will be enlightened and the need for authority will disappear, thereby, according to Pilate, insulting the emperor’s authority. Or something like that.
At a meeting the the High Priest Kaifa, Pilate offers a choice of either Yeshua or Bar-Rabban to be freed. Pilate pushes Yeshua, but, echoing Peter’s denial of Christ, three times Kaifa chooses Bar-Rabban. Once again, Pilate’s pent-up rage bursts out, and he warns Kaifa of impending trouble. Kaifa, naturally, disagrees over the cause of any trouble in Yershalaim, and a polite if somewhat heated debate ensues.
Of course, legal formalities must proceed, and Pilate must face the heat, dust and crowds of this loathed city.
Two people here astound me:
Is Yeshua naif or a genius? Both? What inspired this insistence on the innate goodness of man? How did he come to insist that all this brutality in the world is caused by our own internal unhappiness and anger? Whence his utopian vision- one not too dissimilar to those taught by Communists and Anarchists?
And Pilate. We only get a few hints of his military background, and anybody who’s ever gotten close to a vet knows the psychological damage caused by war. But surely there must be more. Whence his loathing of Yershalaim, a city that in Bulgakov’s description seems quite attractive despite the oppressive heat and light, crowds and dust? What is the cause of his hemicrania? Is it psychosomatic, or is there some underlying physical illness? Why, when he is obviously intrigued by Yeshua’s philosophy, does he alternate between listening and bullying and then finally find a pretext to confirm the death penalty? When he’d thought of a legal pretext to avoid the death penalty?! Why does he ask Kaifa three times which prisoner should be freed? Why does he push for Yeshua’s release?
And then we’re back to Moscow, where Berlioz suffers his predicted decapitation and our poet Homeless/Bezdomny chases the mysterious stranger, the choir master, and a large tomcat at warp speed through the streets of Moscow, along the way entering a stranger’s apartment and seeing a naked but apparently quite short-sighted woman in a bathtub, then deciding the stranger must be at the Moscow River amphitheatre, running off there, then stripping off and going for a swim in the Moscow river.
A mysterious stranger whose accent alternates between something vaguely foreign and native Russian, who refers to a breakfast with Immanuel Kant and is apparently omniscient, repeating to Berlioz and Homeless/Bezdomny their own thoughts, knows their full names despite never having met them before, and predicts the future. An eye-witness account of the trial of Jesus, except that Jesus has become Yeshua, and Jerusalem Yershalaim, Yeshua has only one disciple whose parchment etchings Yeshua insists are more akin to fiction than biography, and his philosophy is markedly different than that taught by the church these past two thousand years, a madcap dash through Moscow chasing the stranger, a choirmaster and a giant tomcat- a tomcat who tries to ride a tramcar, even trying to pay the 10 kopeck fare, but who is chased off by the conductor, and somehow nobody but our poet finds the fact that a giant tomcat is trying to pay his 10 kopecks to ride a tram. A tomcat, for crying out loud!
And our poet, Ivan Nikolaevich Ponyrev, who writes under the penname Homeless/Bezdomny, whose words and deeds so far are thoroughly and increasingly impetuous and irrational.
And the heat, the suffocating heat.
Altogether, a very suitable start to the greatest of all Russian novels, a start that knocks the first-time reader off balance, wondering just what previous knowledge of and assumptions about the world will survive the onslaught.
p.s. Peony reminds me Margarita will soon make her appearance. Oh yes, I am very much looking forward to renewing my acquaintaince with Margarita.
p.p.s. I’m writing “Homeless/Bezdomny” because in the edition I have, the poet’s penname is translated. For purely aesthetic reasons (and this is by no means a criticism of the translation), I prefer his name to be left as Bezdomny.
and now, to lunch