Here are two classic novels from very different parts of the world but they have in common a degree of magical realism that adds zest to their stories that should appeal both to lovers of literature in general and book reading groups in particular. As it happens, both were published in their original languages in the latter 1960s and distinguished critics as well as millions of readers have acclaimed them as two of the very best works of literature in any language in the twentieth century. Both tell tall tales with an ironic twist. I am referring to The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov and One Hundred Years of Solitude by Gabriel García Márquez.
Bulgakov had the sort of tormented life that afflicted free-thinking writers in the Soviet Union under Stalin. Although Stalin did, at one point, intervene to let him continue working in the theatre and writing, the atmosphere was still so restrictive and stifling that, when he organised a private reading of what he called his ‘sunset’ novel, and crowning literary achievement, to a circle of friends in 1939, several tried to persuade him not to publish. In fact, it was officially censored. Bulgakov died the following year of a hereditary kidney disease and it was left to his third wife and widow, perhaps the inspiration for the character Margarita, to struggle to have the book published. It finally appeared in the Soviet Union, in a truncated version, in 1966. It appeared in the West later and I have read The Master and Margarita in its translation by Michael Glenny [London: Harvill Press, 1967]. I do not know the later and highly regarded translation, based on a more complete version of the original, by Diana Burgin and Katherine Tiernan O’Connor, but with annotations and an afterword by Ellendea Proffer, it has much to commend it [New York: Vintage Books, 1996.]
The story alternates between two locations; Russia in the 1930s and Jerusalem around the time of Pontius Pilate’s trial of Yeshua about which the Master is trying to write his own novel. Satan, in the mask of Professor Woland, with a retinue including an upright-walking, talking black cat called Behemoth, arrives in Moscow and by magic and deceit takes over the apartment of the bureaucrat Berlioz. Woland predicts that Berlioz will be decapitated by a young Soviet woman, and that is exactly what happens when he ‘accidentally’ slips on a slick of sunflower oil and falls under the wheels of a passing streetcar driven by a young woman. (This was written at a time when apartments were so scarce that some might well have contemplated murdering the sitting tenants.) Woland continues to wreak havoc in Moscow but he does return a copy of his manuscript to the Master with the words that have entered the Russian language, “Manuscripts don’t burn.” I will not attempt a plot summary but simply say that in the second part of the novel, the Master’s young mistress Margarita works to rescue him from the asylum to which he has been banished. The novel has instances of miraculous teleportation and, overall, the air of both charivari and magical realism and will captivate all but the most literal minded.
If one is looking for arresting opening statement, there is much to commend the first sentence of One Hundred Years of Solitude by the acknowledged leader of South American writers of the last century. “Many years later, as he faced the firing squad, Colonel Aureliano Buendía was to remember the distant afternoon when his father took him to discover ice.” [London: Penguin, 2007, translated by Gregory Rabassa.] The Colonel’s father, José Arcadio Buendía, had founded the village of Macando and the novel takes the history of Macondo down through seven generations of the Buendía family. Many critics interpret the story as a critical metaphor for the story of Colombia, from the colonial rule of Spain and onwards through events such as the Thousand Days War (1899-1902) and the neo-colonial ‘rule’ of the American United Fruit Company, ‘disguised’ in the novel as the American Fruit Company, the arrival of life-changing inventions such as the cinema and the automobile and brutalities like the industrial relations policy of using the military to massacre striking workers.
It is the founding father’s solipsistic belief that Macondo is an island rather than a remote village of a larger country that encourages the family’s inward looking view of events. José Arcadio flees from a duel in which he has killed his opponent and has a dream. Buendía dreams of a city of mirrors named Macondo and decides to establish a new town on the spot. While he is the patriarch, the figure who oversees six of the seven generations is his wife, the matriarch, Úrsula Iguarán. She manages this by living to be 130 years old. She is the one who, despite previous failures by the menfolk, finds a way out of Macondo.
Apart from its well-known ‘signatures’ of magical realism and fatalism, there is the continuing story of the undecipherable manuscript put into their hands by an old gypsy and, as the story unfolds, fewer an fewer seem aware of its existence until, finally, someone discover the message hidden within it. Since book groups and lovers of literature generally will know of both of these books, no further exposition of the plot is appropriate. Suffice to say that if you haven’t already packed your holiday reading, think about laying aside the Booker Long List until the Short List is known and take these two books with you instead.