Chapter 25: How the Procurator Tried to Save Judas of Karioth
Tying up the loose end at the end of Chapter 24, Satan has magically restored the burnt manuscript that the Master had written, in a remarkable example of fiction presciently mirroring truth, since that was exactly what happened with the KGB restoring Bulgakov’s diaries discovered in 1991.
The fairy story has been magically restored to the previous state of innocent bliss. “In the Master’s study, all was as it had been before… Fearing that it was nothing more than a piece of wizardry, that the folio might vanish…, the all-powerful Woland really was all-powerful and Margarita was able to leaf through the manuscript to her heart’s content.”
The confusion here is that this next chapter, extracted from this miraculous manuscript that Margarita has in her hands, continues the story of Pilate that at the very beginning of the book had allegedly been related by Satan himself as an eyewitness account. But now the assertion is that we have a fictional account written by the master. No matter. The confluence of the streams can still sweep us away.
The first two pages of Chapter 25 are devoted to setting the scene of Golgotha, the sense of a brooding divine presence as humanity declares its superiority to God, as perceived from Herod's pagan palace. Not to be outdone, a thunderbolt smashes a cypress like a twig, and a dark fog rolls around like Prufrock’s cat at his ankles as the threatening clouds turn violet tinged with white, raining with an intense noir that could have come from Blade Runner.
Pilate’s eyes are inflamed with insomnia and wine as the hail and lightning crash around the palace, provoking his sullen irritation, if not his conscience. A smashed wine jug recalls the blood of one on a nearby hill. Then his spy returns from his observations at Calvary. Of uncertain nationality, with fleshy nose, vague coloured hair and small eyes narrowing to shine with sly intelligence, the army spy assists the Procurator with the imperial data needed to rule the hated city. Bulgakov is a master of personal description, with vague the perfect colour for a spy’s hair.
The proceeding conversation between imperial apparatchiks, finessing about the mood of the occupied territory and plans for troop movements, is a masterful study of the mind of power. Nothing is reliable in this world, says the spy, save the power of great Caesar. Such obeisant loyalty against Pilate’s amiable condescension well captures the atmospherics of military rule. One can well imagine Bulgakov modelling this discussion on the needs of the Soviet power in occupied Kiev.
Pilate swears by the Lares, illustrating Bulgakov’s attention to historical detail. These guardian deities at the crossroads https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lares
and every locality had a central role in Roman identity and religious life.
In telling the Procurator about the death of Christ (Ha-Notsri), the spy explains that his seven last words were that cowardice is among the worst human sins. Apparently this was one of the most significant lines in the book that were censored out of the Brezhnev edition, so I am pleased to be reading Glenny’s excellent unfilleted smuggled version.
For Bulgakov to make such a j’accuse zolanism was clearly unacceptable to Soviet Power, whose heroic collective courage in the Great Patriotic War was the obvious opposite of cowardice, except in the eyes of enemies of the people. And yet Bulgakov has a point, that the cowed inability to speak truth to power enabled the whole Stalinist tyranny. No wonder Brezhnev didn’t like hearing such talk even more than a decade after the descension of Uncle Joe.
Bulgakov’s mastery of imagery continues in this conversation, with Pilate implying the three criminals were equal, and the spy giving vent to the obvious assumption that Jesus was the important one, leading to instructions for the effective disposal of the body. Having dispatched this item of business, the conversation turns to Judas.