“Are there swindlers in Moscow?” This is the tactless question posed by Satan to the poor innocent barman of the Variety Theatre, who has entered the lion’s den of the flat of the late lamented Berlioz, where the devil is ensconced with his sinister talking cat and evil henchdudes, surrounded by a live owl, a tiger skin, swords in the pattern of tarot cards, and a beautiful young naked lady with a vivid livid scar across her neck.
You see, the barman was swindled by customers who paid for drinks with the magic money that Satan had wafted from the rafters of the Theatre on that ill-starred night of nights, his black magic performance. As others have dolefully recounted in earlier chapters, the devil’s money turns into useless paper, worse than Zim dollars
. But behold and lo, when the barman opens up his packet of fake money in Satan’s presence, the notes appear real again! All that is solid melts into air, as the holy trust of banker’s fiat is profaned!
The spectre haunting Moscow in the time of Stalin is a far cry from Marx’s heady optimism of 1848. Now the communists are giddy with success. This weird head-spinning dizziness of the brave new world of big brother is well captured in this chapter about the grand struggle for Berlioz’ flat, between the devil and the deep blue uncle.
Firstly, we meet Berlioz’ economist uncle in staggeringly beautiful Kiev, Bulgakov’s home town. This chap, Poplavsky, is a master of the tactful tactical scheming and plotting, the cunning strategic machinations, the fawning and dissembling sycophancy, required for successful survival in the mad world of Bolshevism. The cryptic telegram informing him of his nephew’s tragic decapitation appeared to know more than it should, but that can be put down to a simple typing mistake.
(As an aside, I have just discovered a gold mine on this book - http://www.masterandmargarita.eu/en/index.html
- from whence I found the reminder that Satan had warned Berlioz of the impending telegram in advance. This site is well worth a squiz for Bulgakov aficionados, to see how very controversial, esteemed and notorious the author remains in Russia. Even mockery of Uncle Joe has its limits in some quarters.)
What is not a mistake at all, despite the mystery of the imprecise telegram, is that Poplavsky must convey exactly the right note and tone of grief and dismay, and must be Johnny on the spot, in order to secure his nephew’s inheritance, given that flats in communist Moscow lacked a ready market like cucumbers in London, and abuses are not unknown. Such a chance to move to the centre of power will not come twice.
The Kafkaesque nature of Stalinist Russia hits our man Poplavsky soon after he opens the door to the contested flat, to see a wailing thug explaining the death in graphic and gruesome language. He confronts the gruff talking cat, whose threatening officious behaviour typifies all the worst ruffiandom of Russia. Inspecting Poplavsky’s passport upside down, the cat informs him that he is banned from the funeral and must go home, giving him all the respect and courtesy that an apparatchik will normally bestow upon a kulak.
The wicked cat then calls in his enforcer, Azazello. Bulgakov is satirising the notorious iron fist in the velvet glove of communist operations, although in this case the cat glove is perhaps more rubbery and slimy than velvet. Azazello proceeds to threaten and bash and expel Poplavsky in the most brutal and direct fashion, issuing a bloodcurdling cold instruction to go home, stay quiet, lay low and not come back, whacking him about the head with a dead chicken, and tossing all the contents of his victim’s suitcase down the stairs.
The obligatory literary reference ‘messy as Oblonsky’s house’, from Anna Karenina, is explained at https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/620614 ... e-the-wife
But the devil is just warming up. Enter the barman, Andrei Fokich, “a tiny little old man with a painfully sad face”. Monsieur Woland, wearing only black underwear, lambasts the poor fellow for selling bad fish, not allowing him to get a word in edgeways, and then gets his henchthug to predict the exact time and nature of his death, in a sort of airy ‘no man no problem’ way. In typical dissolute tempting fashion, Woland recommends the virtues of wine, women and song, suggesting the barman spend his last days in the company of lovely drunken girls and happy friends. This surreal conversation visibly ages Andrei Fokich.
In a typical exercise of communist humiliation tactics, Satan gives his victim a chair which breaks when he sits on it, covering his trousers with spilt wine. The final straw, once he escapes from this devilish lair, is that his hat turns into a ferocious scratching kitten that covers his head with blood. And when he goes to the doctor, the money still seems real, but later turns into old champagne bottle labels. Then a sparrow dances the foxtrot and smashes the doctor's graduation photo, collateral damage from those who have messed with the devil.