Tuesday, November 13, 2007

The Master and Margarita

Now that I'm done with the Japan trip recap and life should be fairly slow for the next week or so, I can go back to the more usual material of this blog: rambling inanely about things I've been reading. And for the record, the forthcoming post is both rambling and inane, and doesn't say all that much of value about the book. Go figure. I'm behind on that too...this is a post I started back in September.

I've managed to get this far in my life without reading the new testament. I mean, I've had to read bits of the Bible in school: Genesis, Exodus, one of the gospels although I don't remember which one...but for the most part, I've been able to get away with avoiding all the Jesus stuff. So it's a good thing this book has plenty of endnotes. Although, on that subject, let me just say that I fucking hate endnotes. Having to constantly flip around in a book is a pain in the ass. I wonder if a book with footnotes is more expensive to print because, as a reader, they are so much easier to use. Actually, thinking about it, I doubt their more expensive to print these days...it's probably that most people inexplicably prefer endnotes.

And speaking of things I haven't read, I also haven't read much Russian literature. Some poetry of course, and some Chekhov, but I only got about seventy pages into Crime and Punishment and that pretty much rounds out my Russian lit experience. When you major in English literature you really don't read much work in translation and don't have much time to read anything other than what's assigned. Or I found that to be the case, anyway. I've been trying to read more literature in translation for the past year and a half (slightly more time since finishing school) but I'm very pokey. So what I'm saying here is that I have no context in which to consider this book.

While I haven't read any of the other translations, I found the one I was reading--by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O'Connor--to be very good. It's simultaneously a funny, witty satire filled with puns and jokes, and an allegory, neither of which can be easy things to translate. And yet there are none of the signs of strain or stiffness that so often appear in translated work. In the excerpt below the Devil, who has descended upon the officially atheist Moscow, is putting on a magic show with his assistants Fagot and Behemoth.
"And by the way," said Fagot, pointing at Bengalsky, "this fellow is getting to be a bore. He keeps butting in when nobody asks him to and spoiling the performance with his bogus comments. What should we do with him?"

"Tear off his head!" came a stern voice from the balcony.

"What did you say? What was that?" said Fagot, responding to the ugly suggestion. "Tear off his head? Now that's an idea! Behemoth!" he screamed to the cat, "Do it! Eins, zwei, drei!!"

Then an incredible thing happened. The cat's black fur stood on end, and he let out a spine-tingling "meow." Then he shrunk into a ball, and like a panther, lunged straight at Bengalsky's chest, and from there leapt onto his head. With a low growl, the cat stuck his chubby paws into the emcee's greasy hair, and with a savage howl, tore the head off its thick neck in two twists.

The two and a half thousand people in the theater screamed in unison. Fountains of blood spurted from the severed arteries in the neck and poured down the emcee's shirtfront and tailcoat. The headless body's legs buckled absurdly, and it plopped onto the floor. The hysterical screams of women were heard. The cat handed the head to Fagot, who lifted it up by the hair and showed it to the audience, and the head cried out desperately to the whole theater, "Get a doctor!"
The humor there, black as it is, comes through clearly. In other places it's more difficult, and there the references and allusions are carefully explained in the footnotes. Although I'm sure many of the jokes are funnier when they don't have to be explained--as jokes tend to be. Still, the kind of satirical, dark humor the book is rife with probably comes across better than other sorts would.

Of course, the humor isn't the most important thing about the book. It's also about the freedom of the spirit, our responsibility to what is true, love, and many other things. And if I wasn't both tired and feeling a bit removed from writing about this at the moment I'd write more about those things. Oh well. Suffice it to say, it's a wonderful book.


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