Wednesday, January 7, 2009

the master and margarita

If ever there was a book that deserved to be adapted as a graphic novel, this is it. I didn’t talk about the book much when I read it, but considering that was right after I had arrived in the UK, it’s safe to say I had more important things to do. Still, I didn’t forget about it, and obviously it showed up on my top ten books of 2008, which Jamie saw and was kind enough to get me the graphic novel for Christmas. It’s a lovely piece of work, as well it should be, since the art is by internationally acclaimed artists (Andrzej Klimoski, who does the black and white paintings of the main action, and Danusia Schejbal, who does the Pontius Pilate scenes in gouache).

Very little has been altered from Bulgakov’s daring and strange narrative. The sequencing, since this is more cinematic than novelistic, has been streamlined. Instead of beginning with the poet and writer in the gardens of the Patriarch’s Pond, we are introduced to the Master, Margarita, and their love affair. Klimoski’s black and white paintings remind me of the work of Chandre and others who illustrated the French-produced graphic novels of Agatha Christie, like Murder in Mesopotamia and Murder at the Vicarage, and it has the perfect sombre tone for 1920s Russia. In the first few paintings, the Master even looks like John Barrowman! The reason she calls him the Master, by the way, is because she thinks the novel he’s writing on Pontius Pilate is a masterpiece, but unfortunately it leads to the dissolution of their relationship because he is blackballed for writing it (a religious novel in Communist Russia? I don’t think so!).

With that necessary prologue out of the way, we proceed to the wonderfully absurd scene of the writer Berlioz and the poet Bedomnzy meeting Woland and his supernatural crew. It’s Woland who narrates Pontius Pilate’s story, and the wonderfully colorful art highlights that the Pilate story may be the best part of the book (well, it’s my favorite part). It’s not merely a retelling of the story of the crucifixion—its power lies in the fact it not only tries to make the story of Christ (known here as Yeshua Ha-Notsri) as close to historical narrative as possible, it tells it from Pilate’s point of view, not so much sympathetically as . . . well, as a novelist would imagine a character, with private passions and fears.

There are some very clever touches in the art adaptation that, again, highlight the genius of the source material. The scene at the Variety Theatre, a triumph of magical realism and a very funny dig at many of the Soviet institutions of the time, is also painted in gouache. “Well, now, they’re a people like any other. They’re overly fond of money, but then they always were. . . . They’re thoughtless, but sometimes feel compassion, too.” That’s the Devil’s conclusion about man, or at least Moscovites.

I was only disappointed at the ball of the damned sequence. Most of that was excised, while a not-very-funny-joke took up about four panels. Oh well. Maybe the artists didn’t want it to descend into the level of soft porn, as Margarita, her maid Natasha, and Hella the witch spend most of the rest of the book naked. Margarita is a very strange character, I find. Her love for the Master is what prompts her to preside as hostess at the Devil’s ball, and instead of in a normal fable, where selling your soul to Satan in exchange for getting what you want does not lead to damnation or any kind of retribution (that I can see), the Master and Margarita are a lot more well-off than most of the characters by the end of the book. Yet, I do like the ending; Pontius Pilate waits in some kind of limbo with his beloved dog, “He’s waiting for his prisoner, Ha-Notsri. He longs to talk with him again . . .”

Yes, I know this is a graphic novel I will return to often.

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