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Chapter 27: The Last of Flat No. 50 
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Post Chapter 27: The Last of Flat No. 50
Always the master, Bulgakov uses this chapter for a hilarious recapitulation of the book, from the perspective of the State authorities who are trying to work out how to respond to blatantly impossible evidence about Satan’s accursed black magic performance in Moscow. Bulgakov is only too aware of the culture and methods of Soviet officialdom. They haul in all the involved staff from the Variety Theatre and key witnesses for interrogation, rapidly finding that credible and incredible witnesses alike tell a consistent story that is incredible. These events have reduced sane grown men to beg to be locked up.

Even the working hypothesis of mass hypnosis struggles to explain how Likhodeyev had travelled a thousand miles from Moscow to Yalta in an hour. And then when the police raid Woland’s flat for the arrest, the accursed place is always empty, despite neighbours seeing the accursed black cat sunning itself on the window sill, hearing the familiar nasal whine answering the phone, and the tinkling of someone playing the piano.

The amusing embedded irony obviously underlying this ridiculous farce is that Bulgakov sees the Bolshevik coup of 1917 as leading rational people to an equal state of perplexed dumbfoundedment as the police who are tasked to catch the devil. The Russian middle and upper classes were caught in a bewildered state of disbelief as the Germans sent Lenin in the sealed train to the Finland Station, unleashing a botulistic political plague of hatred through the communist revolution that no one could have imagined was possible.

The failure of the Whites to win the Civil War dealt a further blow to assumptions about the limits of the possible, and then the mad descent into collectivisation and terror capped this sad set of stories of the triumph of the impossible. Bulgakov did not live to see the Motherland emerge in glorious victory from the Great Patriotic War, against seemingly impossible odds, but clearly Hitler also underestimated what the communists were capable of in popular mobilisation in the name of an idea.

The serious political message that unthinkable events can happen is regaining its political relevance as Lenin emerges as a folk hero, if not for Sanders and Corbyn then for their extreme acolytes whose grasp of basic economics is so empty.

The chapter concludes in high drama, a gunfight of Mausers (police) versus Browning (cat) at close range, leading to an infernal conflagration as the former flat of the late lamented decapitated Berlioz is doused with paraffin by Behemoth the wicked cat and set alight. Strangely, even when hit with mortal bullet wounds the immortal immoral cat is able to drink paraffin as a bullet antidote, and all his damn fool shots seem to miss the attacking police.


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Post Re: Chapter 27: The Last of Flat No. 50
Robert Tulip wrote:
Bulgakov is only too aware of the culture and methods of Soviet officialdom. They haul in all the involved staff from the Variety Theatre and key witnesses for interrogation, rapidly finding that credible and incredible witnesses alike tell a consistent story that is incredible. These events have reduced sane grown men to beg to be locked up.
I rather enjoyed this chapter. Bulgakov seems at his best when he can satirize popular society with a light touch. For all the brilliance of the negotiation scene between Margarita and Woland, and of the "burial" of the assassination of Judas, this sort of bureaucratic Keystone Coppery feels more human. It just seems to roll off his pen with a droll chuckle of involuntary insight.

Robert Tulip wrote:
Even the working hypothesis of mass hypnosis struggles to explain how Likhodeyev had travelled a thousand miles from Moscow to Yalta in an hour. And then when the police raid Woland’s flat for the arrest, the accursed place is always empty, despite neighbours seeing the accursed black cat sunning itself on the window sill, hearing the familiar nasal whine answering the phone, and the tinkling of someone playing the piano.
Like inside-out Stephen King, Woland's sinister puppetry becomes trickster stuff, faintly overheard and completely baffling. I loved the way he played with everyone's need to cover up the truth in the face of investigators who are determined to understand.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The amusing embedded irony obviously underlying this ridiculous farce is that Bulgakov sees the Bolshevik coup of 1917 as leading rational people to an equal state of perplexed dumbfoundedment as the police who are tasked to catch the devil. The Russian middle and upper classes were caught in a bewildered state of disbelief as the Germans sent Lenin in the sealed train to the Finland Station, unleashing a botulistic political plague of hatred through the communist revolution that no one could have imagined was possible.

The failure of the Whites to win the Civil War dealt a further blow to assumptions about the limits of the possible, and then the mad descent into collectivisation and terror capped this sad set of stories of the triumph of the impossible. Bulgakov did not live to see the Motherland emerge in glorious victory from the Great Patriotic War, against seemingly impossible odds, but clearly Hitler also underestimated what the communists were capable of in popular mobilisation in the name of an idea.
You may have taken this analogy further than you intended to, but it makes a fascinating historical analysis. There was a similar dumbfoundedness over the French Revolution. The Powers assumed that they could squelch the revolution just by combining against it, but Valmy showed that motivated troops could be led to overcome great odds when the enemy used the stultified tactics that had been adapted for mercenaries in the age of the gun.

Napoleon was eventually defeated by Russian self-reliance (built on the willingness to abuse the serfs mercilessly) and then, at Waterloo, by the combination of English independence (despite what Wellington said, Nelson showed it wasn't Eton but the yeomanry that defeated France) and Prussian discipline.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The serious political message that unthinkable events can happen is regaining its political relevance as Lenin emerges as a folk hero, if not for Sanders and Corbyn then for their extreme acolytes whose grasp of basic economics is so empty.
Don't forget that command and control also made the unimagined happen with rapid industrialization. The socialists after WWII had a strong argument for socializing industry, and in general it did far better than hindsight claims. The way to think of it is that the subtleties of producing quality eluded the brute force of command and control. For the task of producing quantity (which, I would argue, is actually the critical task facing the world today) command economies may be better.

In that sense Bulgakov's trickster motif may be oddly relevant. Rather than an argument that "evil spirits" may lurk in human temptation to dominate, to lie, to deny reality and to sell out integrity for a crust of status, one might instead argue the interpretation that human independence and freedom will always be hiding in the subtle machinery of human relations, so that power and its attempts to force a seemingly rational cover story are comically doomed even in their horrifying resort to unimaginable cruelty.

Robert Tulip wrote:
The chapter concludes in high drama, a gunfight of Mausers (police) versus Browning (cat) at close range, leading to an infernal conflagration as the former flat of the late lamented decapitated Berlioz is doused with paraffin by Behemoth the wicked cat and set alight. Strangely, even when hit with mortal bullet wounds the immortal immoral cat is able to drink paraffin as a bullet antidote, and all his damn fool shots seem to miss the attacking police.
I can't imagine that Bulgakov, or his audience, would have seen much Hollywood film. But this uproarious evocation of the Nine Lives superstition reminded me of Hollywood at almost every turn. I couldn't help thinking he was just letting his most enjoyable character "go out with a bang."

And of course it was a resurrection. You have to take that seriously, in a book featuring Calvary, Judas and Pilate. If it was meant as a commentary on the resurrection of Jesus, it is one of the strangest bits of magical realism I have ever seen, with symbolism stretched to the breaking point and hope left at the slave auction.



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Robert Tulip
Fri Aug 03, 2018 8:27 am
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