O Relativista

Relativist morsels and philosophical tidbits.

Laughter and Damnation

Vince paused before he picked up the phone. It was midnight, and calls at midnight never bring good news.

“Professor Salinger?” said a man’s voice.

“Assistant Professor,” Vince replied by reflex. “Yes, who is it?”

There was a silence, followed by close breathing.

“I have a story to tell you,” said the man on the other end, with an amputated chuckle. “You know, before it hits the papers tomorrow.”

Vince squeezed his eyes shut and pressed the phone to his ear. Right then he knew. This was it. The past, catching up. Unable to hang up, he listened as the caller spoke in tones cool as mercury, dredging up things from the muck of memory.

Half an hour later he sat with one elbow on his desk, toying with an open switchblade. As the blade reflected rings of lamplight his thoughts drifted—to the dim desk lamp, the hoop in the backyard, his car licence. Facts, objects, dues. Then back to the phone conversation.

“Juicy, eh?” the man had said at the end, as if it wasn’t him he was talking about. Vince had hung up then.

Fuck him, he thought, now, stoking an anger that wouldn’t burn.

He laid the switchblade on the blotter, lowered his fingers like porcelain bones to the edge of the wood, and regarded his hands. Those damning, condemned hands, white as an invalid’s. Vince caressed the maple top, like a blind man learning a face. He ran his hands over the quilted wood, feeling for bumps and valleys, over the polished marquetry at both ends, over the flared golden handles of the drawer cabinet. Then over the books, stacked squarely on top of each other, his two volumes on ethics, which he must have riffled through a thousand times.

He’d forgotten. In the hollow between spine and page block he’d hidden that letter from Austin. How he had forgotten. That letter would explain things to Jen if nothing else could. He plucked out the silky paper and uncreased it, skimmed its contents. The bile in its words still bit, still made his throat clench with fear. Then his eyes caught on the closing sentences:

Yours won’t be long coming. Wasn’t it your beloved Aquinas who’d said that the best part of heaven is the window looking down on the torments of the damned? Rest assured, old friend, I will be there, watching.

With trembling hands Vince folded the letter and left it on the maple top. He lifted his eyes and gazed into the darkness beyond the pool of lamplight.

No, there was no absolution, no penance cruel enough for what he’d done. He knew it as well as he knew that his life was forfeit and that his soul hung in the balance. Yet now there welled within him an anguish, distinct from fear or self-pity, an anguish flecked with rage at that toneless voice inside his head that whispered, You could have chosen otherwise, because he was certain, in his heart, that he couldn’t have, not after what had happened, not after his father. But nobody would understand, would they, not the police, not his wife, not his son and daughter, especially not them. So be it. How he wished that he, his father, wherever he was, could see what he’d wrought. The monster he’d become. Hey Dad, he’d say, this is the toy you broke, see what despicable acts I’m capable of. Are you proud of me now? Are you?

He wiped his tears and listened to the unspeaking silence, broken only by the faint hum of the desk lamp. Upstairs, he knew, Jen and the kids would be asleep. Good.

Vince touched the switchblade, hefted it, brushed his thumb absently along its blade; the same switchblade that he had cradled to his heaving stomach while his father beat him to within an inch of his life, years ago on the linoleum floor of their old house. Go on, use it, his father had taunted him between bootfalls. You little shit, use it if you got the balls.

So now it had come to this. Mouthing a strangled apology to the empty room, Vince slit his wrist over the wastebasket. Pain blossomed like fire, spreading up his armpit and stiffening muscles all the way to his neck. He dropped his wrist to the side and as thick blood collected in black circles on the parquet, he wiped the blade on his shirt, snapped it shut and put it back on the blotter. Even in death, he liked his affairs neat and to the point. In time his head grew heavy, and the hum in his ears rose to a roar, devouring the silence, the sickly lamp light blurred and peppered with grain like a slowly detuning television set, and then, when he was too weak to hold his head straight and the heat had nearly melted off his wrist, Vince heard the bedroom telephone ring, once, twice, thrice. Then silence until, gradually, his dying ears filled with the babble of rising voices and he saw what seemed to him a circus of souls, terrible to behold, all looking down at him, jeering, leering, and finally it sank in that there was no saving, this time, but only damnation. Only laughter and damnation.

The Diary of a Young Girl, by Anne Frank – Book Review & Thoughts

I feel like a privileged fraud, writing a “review” of a thirteen-year-old’s diary. Seventy five years after the fact and a few wars later, I’d be missing the point if I judged the book solely on literary merit.

Anne Frank would probably have matured into a talented writer had she survived the war. Clearly she had the making of one: her skills of observation and her wit were developed to an astonishing degree, for a young teenager. But nobody reads The Diary of a Young Girl for its artisanal qualities.

It’s not read for straightforwardly historical reasons, either, because there’s precious little history in the geopolitical sense. As a personal chronicle, though, it outshines colder, contemporary accounts. It paints an intimate portrait of one family of Jews, and in doing so offers a rare glimpse into the lives of all those people who were caught in similar circumstances and who are more usually dismissively summed up as a 7-figure statistic. Yet this is not the tearjerker you’d be familiar with from holocaust movies. It’s the everyday life of a girl holed up with people that she didn’t choose. Close quarters drama, yes, but there’s little shooting and none of those heartbreaking scenes—it’s life in all its boring glory, punctuated by a few moments of nerve-racking fear.

Anne Frank was an upbeat girl, loquacious, sometimes jealous, obstinate but ultimately good. She struggled to be cheerful, and the frustration with the people around her is plain as day. Most of her diary is devoted to just that: her frustrations. But then there are a few asides that are deeply distressing. It was particularly chilling to read of the slow realization, in 1942, that if they were to be captured the family were all as good as dead. Did word trickle back to Amsterdam from the extermination camps? I don’t know. Then late in 1943 Anne expressed a presentiment of impending disaster that still gives me the goosebumps. She knew what awaited her, even if she only touched upon the subject very rarely. The tragic irony is not lost on readers, when she wrote that “my fountain pen has been cremated, just what I want later!”

I think everyone should read The Diary of a Young Girl, not because it’s an enjoyable read as much as it is necessary.

The Handmaid’s Tale, by Margaret Atwood – Book Review

Fewer than one in ten books in my collection are written by women. Shocking. Now I’m not particularly fond of affirmative action but this deserves some thought. Lest I start making excuses, there is this fantastic article: the publishing industry hasn’t yet achieved parity, true, but the gender ratio of prominent best seller lists, at least, is closer to 50/50 than my shameful 9%, and by a good margin too. To top it all off, my reading patterns are even worse than my purchases, so bad it’s too embarrassing to talk about.

So I made a conscious effort. Only last month I read Arundhati Roy’s The God of Small Thingsreview here—but that was more of an organic find than a measured decision. Now, my TBR list has 40 or 50 titles written by female authors, all collecting dust, and I have no time to lose. The Handmaid’s Tale was first pick. For later: The Diary of a Young Girl(yep, I haven’t read that, either), and Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, in that order. Good.

All right, let’s hear about the book already.

The Handmaid’s Tale is the story of June Offred, a “handmaid” aka breeder in dysfunctional Gilead (I’m avoiding “dystopian” because it sounds too YA), where women are stratified into functions because, according to those who hold power, “one woman can’t do it all”. In Gilead, nobody is free to choose their lifestyle; the freedoms-to of the liberal West have been replaced by freedoms-from: the freedom, for instance, from rape, but also the freedom from gestures of a romantic or friendly kind. Gilead, in short, is a totalitarian state, banking on the suppression of human instinct and the establishment of the sort of religious ideals that everyone professes belief for but nobody can actually follow.

Unless it means your head, of course. Death and survival are key themes, and rebellion both against and for human nature. Although it’s chilling how quickly people adapt to ugly circumstances, Atwood tells us, instinct cannot be blotted out. Much of what happens happens in June’s mind—the flashbacks to the past, her insights on feeling, power, womanhood, on love and the physical need for others. The language is a joy to savour for nuance and wit, and tenderness too. Though the setting is central, The Handmaid’s Tale is not a plot-driven title and shouldn’t be read as such. That said, enough things happen to keep you riveted until the end, and the end, with its posthumous (and postmodern) scrutiny of Gileadan history, provides hindsight and closure.

There’s a quality to Atwood’s writing that few writers have. I can’t quite find a fitting label for it, but a bundle of adjectives might do: evocative, eloquent, elegiac. Think Children of Men, the movie—the story of that grim limbo in which the seeds of humanity still somehow find a toehold; that sort of thing. Biblical, perhaps. And biblical it is in more ways than one, both subtle (“think of yourselves as seeds”) and explicit.

This is one book with great staying power. All the more heavy the burden of expectation on Atwood’s upcoming sequel, The Testaments. I can’t wait.

4.5 stars.

Flowers for Algernon, by Daniel Keyes – Book Review

Spoiler-heavy, so be warned.

There’s scifi, and then there’s scifi. Frankly, this whole label thing is a tad misleading, but if for the sake of argument we wanted to play along, Flowers for Algernon would be called scifi, yes. Myself, I call it a damn fine book.

Flowers for Algernon tracks the first-person account of Charlie, a man who volunteers for experimental surgery that’s supposed to boost intelligence. The narrator starts out as a slightly impaired baker’s assistant with an IQ of 68 who is hardly able to write, his “progris riports” an illiterate jumble with the depth of understanding of an eight-year-old. After the operation, at his peak, Charlie turns into a staggering genius with an intelligence that would shame most prodigies. His retention is terrific and he can discover associations that none of his contemporaries, not even those who “fixed him”, can imagine in their wildest dreams. This “fixing” is what the novel is about.

Keyes makes striking use of language, imitating the blooming skills of someone rapidly discovering new ways to think and to express themselves. Whereas at the beginning Charlie is a passive, genial person who tries to do things to the best of his (in-)ability, post-op Charlie is a complex man who feels disappointment and anger, empathy and embarrassment. He questions authority, he imagines. He understands others. Oh, and he fixes his typos. But there’s a catch. Charlie’s intellectual and emotional awakening comes at the cost of his happiness, not directly, but as the flip side of better understanding. He finds himself increasingly uncertain about his future, alienated, his intelligence begrudged, and as he re-remembers old things, he confronts a past that quickly transforms into an ugly prequel.

Dazzlingly brilliant and immensely moving, Flowers for Algernon is unlike anything I’ve read. To say that I shed a tear makes it sound a bit melodramatic and too conveniently macho. I didn’t shed tears, I cried. Honestly, Flowers for Algernon is one of the most upsetting novels I’ve read. How can you help feeling like the world’s been swept from beneath you when you read about Charlie’s tragic deterioration at the end? Somehow, this book does it all and does it right: the sense of borrowed time, borrowed love, borrowed knowledge. An existential punch to the stomach, it leaves you unable to breathe. If someone were to ask me which book best affirms the human condition, I’d probably point to this one. It certainly touches on all of our instincts, whether it’s the instinct for love, knowledge, friendship or simply making something of one’s life. Instincts, and with them, their fellow fears. It’s not even that I loved Flowers for Algernon. I did, but more than that, this novel exposed my deepest longings, it stripped me bare.

Without reserve this one’s a genuine five.

The Spinoza Problem, by Irvin Yalom – Book Review

Now this was something—a philosophical novel on the shelves of a Maltese bookseller! The blurb promised a delightfully baroque recipe of Dutch culture blended with Jewish wisdom and Nazi conspiracy, and, as if that were not enough, it featured historical characters. A voice in my head whispered: is it possible, another Umberto Eco? At the counter I paid with conviction.

Tsk, tsk.

The Spinoza Problem jumps between the story of the eponymous Jewish rationalist and that of Alfred Rosenberg, the deranged “philosopher” whose role in the Nazi drama he (Rosenberg) delusionally overinflated but whose real agency is to this day still debated. Based on a few personal episodes and what little is known about both figures, Yalom attempted to write a novel of ideas that combined philosophy and psychology, filling in the remaining gaps with narrative glue.

But, I think it fell flat. The story is sparse and over-indulgently psychoanalytic, characters are sacrificed for ideas and the conversation slightly stilted and often premised on flimsy excuses to dump information. There are precious few of the juicy specifics that make fiction worth reading. While the quality of writing suffices, don’t expect to be wowed, and though the pace is brisk and the content, to me at least, is far from intellectually starved, the finished result as a work of fiction is a bit musty and crinkled. A novel of ideas, I said above, or more pointedly a collage of them under a thin veneer of plot. And even where the text is purely philosophical, it lacks that fresh take on things that would have made it truly novel.

The Spinoza thread could easily pass for a guidebook for fledgling anti-religionists. As for the Rosenberg thread … well, whatever link there is between them, it’s tenuous at best. Yalom had ample opportunity to exploit a powerful theme common to both—prejudice—but instead he chose to focus on the figures’ psychological makeup. Perhaps because it’s so bogged down by bland fact, The Spinoza Problem has none of the richness that I expected. The stories themselves never resolve like narratives normally do, and it seems to me that at the end the writing simply peters out. Disappointing.

3 stars.

The God of Small Things, by Arundhati Roy – Book Review

Picture the torrential rains, the rise and ebb of life along an Indian river, children playing in mud and men marching for ideas. The God of Small Things does all that, seating ideology and religion together in the same room with family, culture and human nature. It’s a tale that transcends national boundaries to say something about all of us, about how given the smallest of provocations we would all press-gang ideas—or bend them—in order to guard our jealousies and hatreds. It’s a tale about love, which, after all, does not always triumph, at least not over death, and whose little victories are very nearly inconsequential.

One thing’s for sure: Arundhati Roy can write. Beautifully, vividly. She provokes a visual reaction that I’ve rarely felt reading other novels, and she does it with a nimbleness that somehow stops just short of being lyrical. Roy makes it easy to see things through the eyes of Rahel and Estha, the twins mainlining the story, yet the themes she talks about are adult and at the heart of it is a tragedy that will chill your bones.

The God of Small Things is moving, desperate, childlike. As the chapters roll by and the narrative scrubs back and forth in time, homing in on that one black fateful night, you’ll find yourself gritting your teeth in seething rage as injustice follows injustice. Roy does not dwell on mishaps like other writers would. She pulls it off with a tender dispassion quite like that of unassuming children, preserving the deathly climax of those last few pages with the same inevitability that an innocent bystander would narrate a homicidal rampage.

Until we stop acting out of sheer prejudice, Roy’s God of Small Things will still have things to tell us. Perish the thought that we, living in a caste-less society, are free from the conflicts of class, or the pitiful smallness of Baby Kochamma’s mind or even the destructive envy of Mammachi’s husband. The God of Small Things is more than just about India. It is a mirror reflecting our hard, spiteful souls.

4.5 stars.

I, Claudius, by Robert Graves – Book Review

Let’s get this straight. Surviving the first few pages of I, Claudius won’t be easy, but I’d bet money that if you do you’ll stick to the end. You might be put off by its over-ambitious metaphors and its florid language, and the switches from first- to third-person are just enough to put your teeth on edge. But this is precisely how a Roman with middling literary skills would have written. It is picture-perfect characterization, and for that reason, it must be acknowledged as genius.

The novel covers the period of the early Roman Empire, but I, Claudius is not about military expansion or geopolitical football. It’s the story of the ruling dynasty, the Claudians, told from the perspective of the runt of the litter, Claudius. Claudius is known to have suffered. Among other things he was half-deaf, he hobbled and stuttered, and he had the undeserved reputation of being a half-wit. His closest relatives—including mother and grandmother—made him the butt of their insults and, when he grew older, acted with cruel indifference towards him. Let it be said that if the real Claudius endured anything remotely close to Graves’s narrator and, to top it off, kept his head, well, then that’s nothing short of miraculous.

Claudius’ poignant anecdotes are run through by a withering critique of Roman achievement, especially of prominent figures we closely associate with the foundation of the Empire. Livia—Claudius’ grandmother—is a manipulative sociopath and a serial poisoner of family members. Two thirds of the novel is in fact devoted to her power wrangling, the familial intrigues surrounding her and her posturing for ever-greater glory. Her offspring is cut from the same cloth: Tiberius is a twisted, spineless pawn in the hands of Livia, and Caligula is a god gone mad. Then there’s Claudius who, physical deformities notwithstanding, survives all heirs in a twist of fate cemented by his personal misfortune to be made emperor of Rome. Claudius has the last laugh.

I, Claudius is a feat of literary ventriloquism. Frankly, it’s astonishing that a modern writer can so convincingly imitate a figure who’s been dead for the better part of two thousand years. Graves weaved anecdotal truths into larger-than-life narratives in such a way that the seams between fact and fiction are invisible, and he did so with a voice and style so compelling as to imprint Claudius the fictitious figure into our collective psyche. It is not hyperbole to say that Graves redefined the genre of historical fiction.

5 stars.

India: A Cynic’s Travelogue, Day 4 (#2)

In the Thar Desert

It’s 2 pm, and we’re being tossed around in a jeep as it speeds towards the desert. The Thar Desert, to the northwest of Jaisalmer, is so close to the Pakistan border that if you stray too far you’re bound to be picked up by the army. Our guide is a wiry middle-aged man exuding energy and enthusiasm, Sanjay Singh. As he turns the wheel and the jeep swerves across the dirt lane, kicking up a cloud of yellow dust, he tells us about his life and local traditions.

The topic is marriage. Sanjay says that in urban centres things may be different, but in the villages around Jaisalmer it is not unusual to marry without once meeting your future spouse. Arranged marriage, here, is entirely a matter of family politics. In his case it was a love marriage though, he explains, and from the way he speaks about his wife you can tell that he means it.

Between the rumble of gravel and his thick accent, it’s hard to catch everything he says, so to compensate he raises his voice. He tells us that his daughter was just proposed to, that she got a henna to mark the event. We offer congratulations—and how old is she? Fifteen, he says with a glance in my direction.

On the way we pick a family of four: Rahul, his wife and two daughters. It’s impossible to make small talk in the noise, but we understand that they’re from Mumbai and on holiday in the north. I’m a bit annoyed because they made us wait half an hour at the hotel where we picked them up, and as we bump around, with hardly enough room for four of us let alone six, holding onto straps and metal bars to keep from tumbling out the back of the jeep, the daughters complain about the seating arrangement and generally act like showcase prima donnas. And here’s me, thinking brats were a phenomenon of the west!

By the time we stop it’s four. We’re on a windblown plain, and the camels, decked up in colourful garb and harnesses, are waiting for us, recumbent on the warm sand. They grumble a welcome. Among them is a craggy-faced man of about Sanjay’s age but of a stouter constitution, who smiles and points at the camels in turn. Shiba, Captain, and Michael Jackson. Then he flicks a thumb at himself. Dinesh.

Aye aye, Cap’n

Mounting Captain is easy. As soon as I’m sitting comfortably Dinesh yahs at the camel and I’m thrust ten feet up into the air. We set out. Captain’s a gentle, stolid creature, his pace dependable, so I’ve soon settled into the rhythm. Nicole too seems to be enjoying it. Fantastic! I adjust my wide-brim hat to cut out the glare from direct sunlight, and slowly, as the camels’ padded hooves softly sigh in the thick sand, I drift into a peaceful state of near hypnosis. This is wonderful.

Michael Jaskson leading the pack, minus the moon walk

Our camels are stringed together by a length of hemp, with Michael Jackson in the lead. Atop Michael Jackson is Dinesh, sitting sideways, stooped, facing the open desert. He doesn’t say much but the man certainly looks content. Occasionally, he makes a clucking sound. Past a mud hovel he starts talking, telling us that during the months of the monsoon people live in the hut and grow crops, all without an electrical or water supply. We chat a little about these hardships, but really, I get the impression that for him it’s just another way of life.

Yours truly, aboard the best camel transport in the world

The landscape is thorny at first, with the buff-coloured sand between bushes trodden flat by countless paws, hooves and tire tracks. The sun, hanging lower as time passes, bears down on us, but it’s pleasant, so pleasant that a slumber comes over me and it’s all I can do to stay awake. Our conversation flags.

The beautiful texture of Thar desert sand

We’re a half hour into the ride, and the bushes have thinned out. As we climb a dune a breeze flings sand across the camels’ hooves and the beasts exhale, making a forlorn, sonorous sound like that of a breaching whale. In the profound stillness of the desert, the camels’ calls are calming, soul-centering. Then, without warning, something immaterial happens and all of a sudden I’m prickling with goosebumps that I can’t quite explain. It’s as if this, right now, all that I’m feeling and experiencing, is a master painter at work, as if these stimuli are his brushstrokes—the mild breeze, the silence and the camels’ breathing, the interplay of shadow and dusky sunlight, the ripples of shifting sand, the soft undulations. This is it. The sublime, or at least a mortal glimpse of it. We top the dune, and in the distance ahead there’s a string of five camels silhouetted against the setting sky. For a minute I find it hard to speak.

This is why I travel.

India: A Cynic’s Travelogue, Day 4

10 am. The fort looms ahead. It’s a steep climb from street level, and the heat makes our shirts cling to our skin. Street hawkers yell and wave for our attention. They want to show us their shiny trinkets. One of them, a woman in red and green dress, bows and clasps her hands in a gesture of humble gratitude when we approach. Without a word she gives a bracelet to Nicole, gratis. I half-expect her to chase after us, but no, she’s genuine. It’s a pleasant surprise, really, so we decide to pay her its fair worth on the way back, later.

Beyond the second gate—a massive timber door set in a towering arch—a space opens up with passages leading off every which way between walls and buildings. There’s no logic to it, the corners uneven, the walls leaning, crowding in. It’s a stone labyrinth that was built piecemeal over the centuries, annexes and addenda materializing from the grey mantle of history in an organic manner as the people at the time saw fit. The writer Borges would have had a blast here.

We pick a darkened alley. Tiny shops are on both sides, mere holes in the wall with stone staircases leading down to underground chambers where the actual businesses reside. You have to stoop to go in.

The alley has a faint smell of spices, imbuing it with that bookish aura of magic I’ve always imagined in stories set in the Orient. We pass by several wrought-iron doors before we exit into a second open space where the stone ground is dappled by the angular shadow of a Jain temple. Astonishingly, a handful of motorcycles still navigate this maze, but they’re few and far in between.

A short way farther on, there’s a group of young men sitting on doorsteps. One of them has a grin on his face.

“May I help you spend your money?” he asks us.

Phew, creative!

11 am. Finally I caught a glimpse of a fighter jet as it swept past above Jaisalmer. We’re at a rooftop Italian restaurant that looked so abandoned that we nearly turned back when we got here—we followed signs through a peeling-plaster maze and climbed a pair of rickety staircases only to find it empty of staff and clients, but now, after someone heard us and showed up, we’re rewarded with a good view of the rooftops and the temples. I order a cappuccino and watch the city. Nearby, I can see hanging draperies swaying softly in the breeze, corrugated roofs glinting sunshine and the crenelated walls of the fort. Wind turbines turn in the distance. Though it’s hazy, the sky is blue, distinctly so. Nothing like Delhi’s suffocating pall.

Those sunbeams are just… gorgeous

12 pm. In one of the Jain temples sits a large god whose name sounds suspiciously like “Tender babu”—[I’m positive that’s what I heard, but I can’t find a reference anywhere]. This is just one of a complex of temples, each carved out of yellow sandstone and adorned with hundreds of white marble figures of different sizes. It is fascinating to walk through the shady interior of the temple, to take in the staggering amount of detail. To my untrained eye, the angular and elaborate elements of the architecture evoke a Mayan interior.

Sensual curves brought to you by the authors of the Kama Sutra

A man is anointing statues with water, rubbing a cloth on their cold marble. Wherever he touches the stone, the surface is a smooth, burnished white from all the years of rubbing. Close by, next to a trayful of banknotes, an old hermit-like man is blabbering something in an inane mix of English and Hindi. Soliciting cash, I presume, because he’s pointing at the tray now. But right there, on the tray itself, is a sign saying “Don’t give money to the religious men”. Ha! Where’s the fun in rules if they can’t be broken, right?

A marble deity has been calmly sitting here for centuries

The Jain temples behind us, we walk back to the fort entrance. We pass a man sitting on a stool, who’s intent on tracking us with his eyes.

“Want some nice toilet paper to make your bottom happy?” he asks us.

It’s hard to stop laughing. Today’s one for alternative sales pitches, it seems.

The Master & Margarita, by Mikhail Bulgakov – Book Review

1930s Russia was an intellectual minefield. First the revolution, then international friction ratcheting up over to the west, finally the horror of the Stalinist purge. Ideology was the weapon of choice against the decadent capitalist and the fascist, and like all weapons, ideology was deadly.

Among things intolerable in Soviet Russia was religion. The Communist program was militantly atheist, with the suppression of religion being one of its chief planks. As Marx had put it, religion was nothing but the “opiate of the masses”. Perhaps so, too—it is not for me to argue against Marx. But as all too often happens, when dogma replaced dogma the new tenant was also a religious one in all but name. A dogma with the same overtones of salvation and condemnation as the Christianity it replaced—instead of their spirits, this one whipped the flesh and mind of its members. Punishment, a headlining feature of all Abrahamic religions, was in the Communist world physical and harsh, sometimes fatal. And thoughtcrime too was persecuted.

It is within this context that Bulgakov wrote The Master and Margarita. How he managed to pull it off without drawing direct fire remains a mystery to me, but it couldn’t have been easy. This book is testament to the struggles he endured.

First things first. The Master and Margarita is two parts comedic romp, one part biblical epic. The two are so different you’d be excused for thinking they were written by different authors. Language, imagery and tone set them clearly apart, only to be tied together by the Master’s narrative thread. The one part, a satire set in 1930s Moscow, is a carnivalesque drama starring Satan aka Woland and his retinue of four: Behemoth, a huge black cat given to D’Artagnan-style antics, mono-fanged Azazello, suave Koroviev and scary vampire-slash-succubus Hella. They’re out pranking the Muscovites, hoodwinking a packed audience in a crowning achievement that involves fake cash and clothes that vanish. In the meantime, the Master, a writer shut up in a sanatorium, is still suffering the aftermath of devastating press and a broken-off love affair.

The second part is set in Yershelaim—Jerusalem. This is the moving narrative of Jesus’ execution, written by the same Master the other part tells us about. Bulgakov takes a few liberties with the canonical Golgotha story, a small detail of which is the slight emphasis on Jesus being “executed” and not “crucified”. Countless other differences expose Bulgakov’s intelligent revision of the Jesus story, often going as far as to suggest that the man was obstinately naive about human character, without sacrificing the essential holy nature of the “philosopher”. Bulgakov was a believer, and for that he must have suffered—the Master, in short, is Bulgakov himself.

The book can be seen in that light, I think: an expression of one man’s dismay at the atheism foisted by the Soviet administration. It can also be seen as a cathartic eruption of pent-up vengeance against the literary establishment and a commentary about the base nature of humankind—covetousness stealing the spotlight. Bulgakov seems to be saying that whatever ideology people subscribe to, human nature doesn’t change.

There were parts that I found no analogue to, and sometimes it felt like everybody was in on a joke that I didn’t get. Not surprising, given I know so little about the Russian situation at the time. Nor was the translation top-notch. Though it did not entirely get in the way of enjoyment, I found the language a bit clumsy, sometimes deaf to repetition.

Yet Master and Margarita manages to drive at truths of a cosmic proportion while being devilishly entertaining and side-splittingly funny. If you’ve read Tom Robbins’s Jitterbug Perfume, the supernatural-satirical thread is one you’ll be familiar with. Pitch in a healthy dose of Goethe’s Faust and some of Stephen King’s Needful Things, and you’ll have a good grasp of how Master reads like. You can almost hear the distant notes of circus tunes as you read.

4 stars.