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4.4 out of 5 stars180
4.4 out of 5 stars
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on 24 February 2011
This book has got to be one of the best in any language... A man in Stalin's Moscow writes a novel about Jesus. Satan turns up with a retinue of demons, among whom is a giant gun-totin' cat. Much havoc ensues. Pigs fly, choirs of bureauctrats sing folk songs, and lovers find happiness (sort of).

Social satire? Fantasy? Historical fiction? Religious fable? Romantic comedy? Existential tragedy? Yes. ...ish. It's a tough one to classify: a lot of labels fit it, but none quite describes all of it... Basically, if you want to know what Russian literature is about but can't be bothered to wade through the 19th century classics, read this - it distils much of what is best about it: the big questions, the sweeping romance, the darkly absurd and phantasmagoric sense of humour. You want "the Russian soul" - it's all there.

The book was first published in Russia in the early 70s and gained cult status pretty much immediately. These days it is very much part of the unofficial Russian canon, and many expressions have entered everyday language. What's it like to actually read? Well, despite having at least three or four core plot lines, this is a pretty tight piece of writing and, as Russian novels go, a comparatively short one - 384 pages. As far as the language goes - hats off to the translators! Bulgakov's language is dense, elaborate, and highly ideomatic. It's hard to translate, and there are plenty of crap translations about.This translation is the best one I've seen for getting across the unique music and atmosphere of the Russian original. That said, the original does expect a bit of an effort on the reader's part - but it's worth it. It really is one of those books where you get out what you put in.

Can I fault this book? Well, I suppose, Bulgakov is pretty partisan, and there are definitely good guys and bad guys. But then, maybe, in a book where Jesus and Satan turn up, that's to be expected.
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on 22 May 1999
Abandon everything you thought you knew. This may appear to be a cartoonish romp featuring farcical demons, beautiful witches and Mauser-wielding cats, but Bulgakov is screwing with your mind. Is this novel a biting satire of Stalinist Russia, a damning indictment of organised religion, a critique of received truth, or is it simply The Truth? Read the book that inspired Mick Jagger to write Sympathy For The Devil and decide for yourself.
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on 8 January 2013
Michael Glenny's translation of Mikhail Bulgarkov's widely acclaimed masterpiece accurately reflects the author's narrative, according to one of my highly competent students of English as a foreign language whose mother tongue is Russian.

Bulgarkov weaves a story of remarkable complexity, alternating between the bizarre and the credible. He variously and apparently effortlessly combines humour with tragedy and to some extent mysticism.

This is a book for the serious reader; if you are such, it's likely that you'll be captivated by Bulgarkov's writing - surely the work of a genius.
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on 13 January 2000
You can take it on trust, this is a brilliant book. The question is which translation to get? I'd recommend this one, which reads very poetically in English. The Penguin is more faithful to the Russian ( I assume ) but less powerful, more stilted, in the English. The following quote can be found in my review of the Penguin translation also, to allow you to compare. Which one sends shivers down your spine?. "The mist that came from the Meditarranean sea blotted out the city that Pilate
so detested. The suspension bridges connecting the temple with the grim fortress of Antonia vanished, the murk descended from the sky and drowned the winged gods above the hippodrome, the crenellated Hasmonaean palace, the bazaars, the caravanserai, the alleyways, the pools ... Jerusalem, the great city, vanished as though it had never been. The mist devoured everything, frightening every living creature in Jerusalem and its surroundings. The city was engulfed by a strange cloud which had
crept over it from the sea towards the end of that day, the fourteenth of the month of Nisan."
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on 13 October 2004
If I was to name one book as my favorite of all times this has got to be it. It is hugely entertaining, incredibly moving and a multi-layered description of the burocratic hell that is Moscow in the early 20th century. Needless to say the book is a classic, there will ALWAYS be burocratic hells around.
It is quite brilliant to have satan come to save the world, to make bad things happen to bad people and to save the last remaining good souls from destruction.
But the real beauty of the book is the wonderful book within the book, the master's masterpiece, the story of Pontius Pilate. I often read these chapters by themselves for it is a wonderfully written story of Christ and his tormentor.
Anyway, if you haven't read it, please do. if you enjoy good literature you will not be disappointed.
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on 12 December 2008
My review is less about the novel and more about the translation; while I am not a Russian speaker/reader and therefore have not read the original to be able to compare, I think that the "naturalness" of this particular English translation is not that great - the language seems stilted and slightly awkward. At first I wondered if this awkwardness was deliberate (ie that it was also present in the Russian) but having checked the first pages of a couple of other English translations of the same book, I have decided that it isn't as other versions are more readable and "authentic" English. I would suggest trying Volokhonsky & Pevear or Burgin & O'Connor's translations instead.
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VINE VOICEon 16 January 2003
It takes little time to understand why this is one of the most epochal Russian novels of the 20th century. Mixing theological observation, satire and social comment into one work is never easy, and the book could have been a heavy handed diatribe on Stalinist Russia that dated badly. Instead, there is a timeless quality about this book and a light deftness of touch that ensures its longevity.
Fittingly, some of Bulgakov's expressions used in this book promptly passed into the Russian vernacular - "second grade fresh", a parody of Stalinist obfuscation that simply means "rotten" is a great example.
Interestingly for those who've heard The Rolling Stones' "Sympathy for the Devil", the opening lines were inspired by the opening lines of the Devil in this book. Jagger was reportedly a great fan of the book, having been strongly urged to read it by Marianne Faithfull!
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on 7 March 2014
In my opinion, this vapid, dream-like, 'masterpiece' is nothing more than a rambling, random, chaos of events unsupported and unsustained by any meaningful characterisation or plot. It deceives the reader with colourful and imaginative fragmentary shows of artistry just as Woland, Bulgakov's tinpot Satan, deceives the muscovite masses, and laughs at them.

How wonderful the Pontius Pilate episodes, they say. I agree, the best sections of the novel , no doubt. Yet, you'd be wrong in thinking they co-ordinate whatsoever with Woland's satanic mission. It doesn't add up. That's the devil in Bulgakov - stretching credence to absurb proportions. Like a child testing his mother's patience until he's finally told to jolly well get up those stairs to bed.

I'm afraid it was well past Bulgakov's bedtime even before the awkward departure of Book 2 into implausible love story and daft, hyperkinetic ravings where wave upon wave of ridiculous mischief - playground horseplay - accumulates into a heap of phantasmal bric-a-brac that really ought to be tidied away before the grown ups get back...

Satirical? Ok, occasionally. Irreverent magical fantasy? I suppose you could call it that but utterly insubstantial as a poof of magician's smoke. I suggest Kafka, Murakami or Carroll if you're seeking genuine masters of the nightmarish and the surreal.
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on 24 September 2004
With the ingenius use of the Biblical tale of Pontius Pilate, Mikhail Bulgakov has written probably the greatest novel ever. Although I now know it is a famous book, it wasn't brought to my attention untill this year. For a 19 year old, old "cult classics" don't usually have a grand appeal, however deciding to read this was one of the best decisions of my life.
Although the story is extraordinarily bizarre and surreal, it never seems to go over-the-top when you're reading it - although you know very well that it is exceeding reality beyond any reckoning. Thus, when you are reading it, you take the shape of the book in the sense that it seems perfectly normal. The craziness, evidently, makes it very hard for a voluntary reviewer to put it into words!
If you manage to keep up with the story, and I've heard people say they couldn't, then this makes for an utterly fascinating read. The bewildering list of Russian names can easily confuise the reader, however changing the names from their originals into "Peter Jones" or "John Smith" would take the mystique away from the book and besides, names like "Nikolai Ivanovich Bosoi" just make it much more exciting! Writing a short synposis of this story is impossible, one can only explain how amazing this book is and recommend anybody with the time read it with full concentration.
The main thing about this is how the adventurous fiction is intertwined with the story of Pontius Pilate and his decision to execute the prisoner "Yeshua Ha-Nostri". The links and the connections between the two tales are gloriously played out by Bulgakov who seems to return to the Pilate story from the story of a black magician's visit to Moscow with immaculate frequency. Come the end chapters of this book, the satisfaction of realising what has happened is one I have never been met with by any book.
This is a must-read book for anyone!
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on 7 September 2011
LOVE it! Mind blowing!
For a lot of people i know Russian literature is 'War and Peace' or 'Crime and Punishment'. Luckily, if you reading this, you are about to change that, at least for oneself, and experience a masterpiece of 20th century Modern Russian Literature.

This book is a true jewel, contemporary, witty, deep, unpredictable, very Russian! You will love it or never get to understand it. no middle with anything Russian.

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