Top Ten Tuesday* Variation: Eastern Block Humor & Bulgakov’s Master & Margarita

mathuniverseI’ve been dallying on this Top Tuesday post (a meme hosted by The Broke & The Bookish; theme: humorous books) for days (originally I was going to have it ready by the end of the weekend and schedule it to post during my busy week). But the more I thought about it, the more I wasn’t sure I’d have anything productive to add to the conversation.  Because I’m probably the last person you want to get humor recommendations from (for example, the pop-physics book I’m reading now, Our Mathematical Universe: My Quest for the Ultimate Nature of Reality has me doubling over in hysterics every other page… sigh – when did I become the crazy math teacher?)

Still, the more I thought about it, the more I realized by not writing this post, I was practicing a favorite strategy of mine: avoidance. I mean, the things that are hardest to write are probably the most worth it to attempt. And this time, to write anything at all, I found myself compelled into a variation of the theme Top 10 Humorous Books – a meditation of sorts on my own relationship with humor, told through one of my favorite books of all time, The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov.

Bulgakov completed this “devastating satire of Soviet Life” in 1940, but his mind-blowing work was not published until 1966 (even though it left everyone at the original private reading speechless, afraid, and excitedly rejuvenated). The Master and the Margarita is a dramatic wildfire that conjures a mad, visionary rendering of Moscow, and that wrecks all illusions of Stalinism as portrayed by the State/propaganda. In other words, it’s a glorious work of subversive resistance: perhaps the most courageous, the most historically significant, the most aesthetically brilliant and creative work of such kind to come out of Eastern Europe (in communist times).master

To fully understand the humor of The Master and Margarita, I think it’s important to first consider the nuances of Soviet daily-life, because this is where humor begins, in the lived experiences of people.

Ironic, tragic, dark yet empowering humor was central to Eastern European resistance to communism, and served a healing as well as communal/relational function. Even today, in visiting Bucharest, the city where I was born, I notice this way of relating remains, and is practiced, without reservation, between strangers at bus stations, intimate family members, colleagues at the office, etc—it continues to be a key thread of identity and of relation to the world. I have never read any work that captures this mood better than Bulgakov.

An Example: 1980s Romanian Joke
Man walks into a butcher-shop (state-run, as 100% of all such enterprises). Tells the butcher, “I’ll take 2 kilos of whatever you have.” The butcher hands him 2 kilos of meat hooks. …. (that’s all they had in stock – the hooks used to hang up the meat; the saddest part of this joke is that it basically described reality)

Brooding ‘Eastern bloc’ humor is absolutely central to how my identity developed, even though I moved to the States at the age of 11. I did, after all, continue to live with my Romanian parents, surrounded by other immigrant Romanian families. These experiences, coupled with reading Bulgakov and other literature from the region, led me to conclude that you will not meet anyone more dead-pan than an Eastern-European, especially not one born in “that era.” Some of us are basically living dead-pan, you really can’t take anything we say seriously because we don’t, ourselves (and yet, somehow, we are often taken most seriously of all).

There was a period in grad school when I was fascinated with understanding this phenomenon. I did some research and learned that the development of a duality of psychic space/a mode of schizophrenic resistance through humor, is widely emphasized in literature on communism. To many who sought refuge in books and humor, this fragmentation of the psyche transformed into a positive experience: a honed, rich duality was a sign of strength, showing how one could successfully detach herself from the absence of things and to fill space with meaning in spite of adversity. These processes were transmitted historically, and taught one how to survive without alienating oneself psychologically. Andrei Pleşu remembers humor about lack as a “prop of survival”. Oana-Maria Hock remembers the theatre as providing a “surrogate toughness”, a form of resistance in the face of material insecurity. In a place in which material necessities were difficult to come by, disassociation, particularly through artistic release, served to create spaces of plenty.

It’s a bit like Communist Zen: one learns to detach and to view the whole fiasco from a distance. At which point, of course, it all looks absurd, and it’s clear that nothing is “real”. This is the magic that The Master and Margarita effects – it lays bare the absurdity of Moscow’s rules, it manages to detach itself from the daily horrors, it resists Stalinism’s colonization of the spirit.

There are too many examples to count, but I’ve picked a couple favorites; first, the reference to “second-grade-fresh” fish.  It may seem superficially funny to anyone who has not experienced rationing as a way of life, but the phrase has many layers of meaning: first, as a reference to the rationing process/how hard it was to find food, second as a reference to the Eastern-block communist way of meticulously categorizing all things (such as different grades of products, of which “first grade” was of course never available to the non-connected citizen), third as reflection of how people in this region relied on deeply disturbing humor to pacify, at least temporarily, their disquietude, fourth, illustrating the peculiarities of communication during this time (when everything had at least a double meaning, under the politically correct and allowed language), and fifth, it brings back the embodied feeling itself of how one used to imagine the world before 1989–it is absolutely visceral, because this is exactly how people talk(ed).

Another example: in the Epilogue, when Bulgakov takes on the narrator role and tells us what happened after the Devil left Moscow, he first mentions the plight of black cats: “A hundred or so of these peaceful animals… were shot or otherwise destroyed in various parts of the country”… This concern for cats is clearly absurd considering circumstances.

But still, there’s even more; citizens were goaded into public acts of vigilantism, bribed into capturing black cats and reporting with them to police stations; there is even a story of a woman who comes to a station to vouch for the “character” of her cat. Clearly, this is not a story about cats, but a reference to the Secret Police, the dreaded disappearances, and the ways in which regular citizens were complicit in the process-yet at the same time, it is also a story about how Eastern block policies/dictators actually did value “cats”/animals above people (not to mention that people were treated AS animals, another double meaning).

In an even darker twist, after several pages, Bulgakov moves on from the cat stories: “Besides the cats, there were a few people who suffered some minor unpleasantness. Several arrests were made… A lot of other things happened, but one can’t remember everything.”

And with this poignant reference to the state-sponsored culture of “forgetting” (scrubbed history books, banned authors, emphasis on the present and future at the expense of the past incarnated in communist policies, purging of national archives, etc) Bulgakov ends by reminding us to stop, observe from a distance & peer beyond fabrications, chuckle for a moment, and remember that our reality is our own to create.

7 comments

  1. Because of you this book has been on my to-read shelf for “too-long”! Maybe I feel like I won’t do it justice as a reader? But, to paraphrase: “the things that are hardest to read are probably the most worth it to attempt.” I’ll make it a May book!

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    1. Hrm, I’m not sure if you would _enjoy_ this – maybe get a second opinion? It’s definitely worth it as an academic exercise in understanding Soviet culture if you’re in the mood for that, but I’m not sure about its applicability to non-communist 21-st century. My own appreciation is deeply personal, and Bulgakov is probably a must read for a “Soviet Studies” reading list, but I’m really uncertain about recommending this as a ‘recreational’ read otherwise… So… it may be worth borrowing in case you hate it/don’t want to finish? (an acquaintance of ours really disliked it… we’re still friends ;))

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  2. Our “Classics” book club will be reading M&M this May. I’m looking forward to it but also concerned about my (American-born and raised) response to its humor. If I don’t find it funny, am I lacking in empathy/humanity? If I DO find it funny (or even hilarious) am I engaging in a form of schadenfreude? This is my dilemma with dark/gallows humor in general…

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    1. Hi Marie – thank you so much for reading. I wouldn’t honestly say this books is very “funny” – its humor may induce more like a wistful, weary chuckle. Or it may not even seem humorous (the book is VERY bizarre, basically The Devil shows up in Moscow with a talking cat, and all sorts of snafus begin to happen). It’s more like an allegory/ironic take on totalitarianism, that exposes how ridiculous it is.

      As you read it with your book club, I would not at all worry about whether your responses match others’. You are absolutely not lacking in empathy if you don’t relate to this. I personally don’t know if I would have, myself, if I wasn’t born in the region. Maybe if you don’t enjoy it, try to look at the book as a lesson on Soviet life/ experience. Not something to agree with or like, just something to learn about. Hope it goes well!

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