In this centenary year of the Russian Revolution, much attention is being focused on Soviet Russia and its culture. One author who exerts an eternal fascination is Mikhail Bulgakov; recognised nowadays for his epic work The Master and Margarita, in Soviet times he was probably more known as a playwright since his novels were deemed unpublishable and few made it into print during his lifetime. Now, however, he makes his debut as a character in the first novel by author Julie Lekstrom Himes, Mikhail and Margarita.
The book opens with Bulgakov and his friend, the poet Mandelstam, having a meal together. Into this buddy-buddy world comes Margarita, a beautiful woman who’s been having an affair with the poet; needless to say, Bulgakov is attracted to her. And when Mandelstam is seized on his way home by the secret police, the two are naturally drawn together. Bulgakov is nominated to write a letter of protest about Mandelstam’s arrest, but he’s tortured by insecurities about his own position as well as jealous of the affair with Margarita. However, the two strike up a relationship of their own, and Margarita claims that her affair with Mandelstam was pretty much over.
But Mandelstam is released, only to be sent into exile with his wife. This should leave Bulgakov and Margarita in peace, but a strange agent is following them; an agent who is himself smitten with Margarita. Things take a fantastic turn as she’s exiled to Siberia and followed out there by both Bulgakov and the agent. Will Margarita escape exile? Will Bulgakov survive to write his masterpiece? And who, actually, is this agent?
Mikhail and Margarita is an interesting, if unexpected read. Himes cleverly draws on elements from Bulgakov’s masterworks, for example mentioning a character called Annushka, and setting one scene in Patriarch’s Ponds involving Apricot juice and burps! These elements will, of course, be familiar to anyone who’s read The Master and Margarita, and I imagine there may be references to Mandelstam’s works that I missed due to lack of familiarity with them. She also paints an alarming and unsettling portrait of Stalin and the effect he has on anyone around him; his power is such that people lose all reason when dealing with him.
It did occur to me that by making the main protagonists real people, an author expects certain foreknowledge from the reader, which could limit the scope and necessity for character development. This tends to be is the case here; the characters appear on the page with no introduction or backstory and with the assumption they need no further explanation. That isn’t a problem for me, and doesn’t necessarily detract from the enjoyment of a gripping read, but I imagine it could be an issue for a reader with less knowledge of the context of the book. However, conversely, the fact that I know so much about Bulgakov did interfere with my reading of the book at times. As most people with more than a passing interesting in the great Russian writer know, he based Margarita based on his third wife Yelena Shilovskaya, so having a new, fictional Margarita was a little unsettling.
I have to admit also to having occasional issues with Himes’ representation of Bulgakov (less with Mandelstam whom I’ve read less by and about); and also with the portrayal of Mayakovsky’s death, which goes for the murder theory and presents it as fact. The portrayal of Mandelstam is, however, a moving one: his courage in the face of violence is striking, and his ultimate fate tragic.
Where Himes excels is in capturing the atmosphere of fear and suspicion that must have been common whilst living in Soviet times; the uncertainty of everyday life, the feeling that at any moment you might be arrested and dragged off to who knows what fate. The paranoia experienced by the characters, the constant betrayals and the brutality of those in power is never skated over, and I found myself wishing that Himes had invented the characters she wanted to use to tell her tale, rather than building a fantasia around existing authors. She portrays so well the Soviet art world that she could have easily told the tale of her own characters and their loves, lives and strife, and that would have been just as effective, if not more so. As it is, having real people going off on such fictional adventures just muddies the waters.
However, to a reader less picky that me, and one perhaps less well versed in the background, this is an important book; it brings to life the horrifying results of rigid political systems and the loss of humanity they bring. In an increasingly unstable world, where tolerance has gone out of the window, it’s timely to be reminded of what happens to the arts and culture (and those who produce it) under a totalitarian regime. It’s a scenario I hope we don’t see again and this book is a stark reminder of how life can become if we don’t protect ourselves from tyranny.