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The Master and Margarita on Sky Arts 2

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Woland and Koroviev

Woland and Koroviev

A quick heads-up to anyone who missed the recent screening of Vladimir Bortko’s masterly adaptation of this book – there are episodes appearing on Sky Arts 2 from midnight tonight, though I can’t tell whether this is a re-run from the start as there is no programme information given!

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

Aleksandr Abdulov as Koroviev

For anyone that loves the book, I highly recommend trying to catch these episodes if you can….

Koroviev and Behemoth

Koroviev and Behemoth

The Master and Margarita TV adaptation – more thoughts

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I find myself in a somewhat fragile state of mind today, after watching last night the final part of Vladimir Bortko’s magnificent TV adaptation. When the UK’s Sky Arts Channel showed their much-lauded (but not that great) version of “A Young Doctor’s Notebook” last year, they also snuck in this 2005 Russian TV show onto their second channel – without any hype or fuss or anything. I was initially wary, as I tend not to take to other people’s interpretations of books I love.

M&M cover

But I shouldn’t have worried, as it was obvious from the first shots how much Bortko loves Bulgakov’s work and what a marvellous experience watching this show would be. The cast are magnificent – there could be the odd quibble (Woland is older in the show than his description) – but I thought they were just spot on. The sets were magnificent, the effects creditable, the music uplifting – I could rave for hours!

There’s always the danger when adapting a long work of literature that the meaning will be lost, but Bortko stuck closely to the book, and the length and pace of the show allowed the themes to develop properly – no flashy, pointless, rapid-cut action or special effects, but proper acting and dialogue and scenes.

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The acting was remarkably good and from what I’ve read online, the cast were Russian heavyweights. I was particularly taken with Koroviev, played by the late Aleksandr Abdulov, and his scenes with Kot Behemoth were a joy!

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Any negatives? Not really – I felt that episode 10’s final parting scenes were perhaps slightly truncated and we didn’t really say a proper farewell to Koroviev, Behemoth and Azazello. But the “horses flying to the moon” sequence was incredible and the whole episode was very moving.

I’d recommend this series strongly to anyone who loves the book of “The Master and Margarita” – it is available with English subtitles, or maybe watch Sky Arts to see if it is shown again. There is also an excellent site here which has much information on the book and the show. I’m definitely up for a re-read now – if my emotions can take it!

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As a sidenote, it struck me during my obsession with this show how parochial we are in the English-speaking world. Initially my Internet searches brought up limited information on the show. However, when I had a lightbulb moment and hit Google Translate, then put in various search terms in Russian, I came up with a mass of results. We assume that all actors and filmmakers and tv shows are English and known to us. But in the same way as there is literature in many languages, there are whole industries producing multi-language culture. Many of these actors and film-makers are unknown to us, producing work only in their own tongues, yet what they are producing is incredible. Bortko in particular seems to be a film-maker worth watching as what I’ve seen so far of his version of “A Dog’s Heart” looks equally amazing in its own way. We need to look outside of our own culture because experiences like these enrich us.

An Old Favourite: A Dog’s Heart by Mikhail Bulgakov

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I confess to being well and truly sunk into a Bulgakovian frame of mind at the moment. The TV version of “The Master & Margarita” has me thoroughly hooked but I’m putting off a reading of the Hugh Aplin translation till it’s finished (today, alas!) So it seemed somewhat sensible to pick up my lovely Hesperus edition of another of the great man’s works (again translated by Aplin) to keep me going.

heart of dog

“A Dog’s Heart” is a much shorter work than M&M but is very well known and packs quite a punch! The initial narrator is a poor injured stray dog called Sharik. Scalded by a mean cook, out in the cold and ready to die, he is found and rescued by the eminent surgeon Philip Philippovich Preobrazhensky. Initially Sharik cannot believe his luck as he is taken back to a nice warm flat, fed and cared for, and in typical dog-like fashion he becomes devoted to the Professor. However, there is more to this kindness than meets the eye, as the Professor is caught up in the scientific crazes that were sweeping Soviet Russia and is planning a transplant operation that will put the glands of a human into the dog.

And the results are surprising and shocking – the dog turns human but combines the worst characteristics of both! Remarkably, he takes the rather odd name of Poligraf Poligrafovich Sharikov and starts to move upwards in the hierarchy of the communist authorities. Meanwhile, the Professor is battling with the House authorities who want to take away some of his space and it is only the fact that he is surgeon to some high-ranking Communists that enables him to hold them off. Sharikov’s uncouth behaviour continues to get worse, he causes havoc in the flat, molests the women servants and generally disrupts the Professor’s life so much that it becomes unbearable. The end is maybe predictable but the only option available to the Professor, who has had his eyes well and truly opened by the results of his experiment.

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It’s a few years since I read this book, but I remembered it remarkably well. Bulgakov is such a great satirical writer – he captures the voice of Sharik wonderfully, giving him a distinctive doggy voice all of his own, much of which is retained when he becomes humanised. It’s a funny, tragic book and not afraid to tackle larger themes of the role of science vs the role of nature – as the Professor admits towards the end of the story,  “Explain to me, please, why one needs to fabricate Spinozas artificially, when a woman can give birth to him any time you like”.  Bulgakov seems to be aiming his sights not only at the medical profession and the ethics of the scientific experiments they are undertaking (a subject also touched on in Platonov’s “Happy Moscow”) but also at a regime that could allow such a bizarrely created “human” to have a position of authority.

One of the things I love about MB’s characters is their moral ambiguity – the Professor is firstly perceived as well-meaning, then seen as possibly selfish and greedy against the backdrop of the Housing committee, then again as cruel in his operation on poor Sharik, but becoming once more a sympathetic person when we perceive what he is going through at the hands of Sharikov. Likewise, the dog is just a dog with all the usual traits, but once these are present in a human body they become completely unacceptable – although he fits in well with the new Communist Man and Woman, so perhaps Bulgakov was simply saying the new regime consisted of dogs!!

And it’s fascinating to notice Bulgakov’s obsession with housing and space issues – obviously in the early days of the Soviet Union, large ex-nobility dwellings were divided up into flats, and as people fled from the country to the cities, the lack of living areas became a major problem. In fact, in M&M Woland refers to the housing problem having spoiled the Muscovites, and space is also an issue in one of the stories I’m currently reading, ‘Quadraturin’ from “Memories of the Future” by Sigizmund Krzhizhanovsky.

For anyone with more than a fleeting interest in Soviet literature and satire, this is an essential read. The translation by Hugh Aplin is eminently readable, as usual, and comes with discreet and useful notes plus a helpful introduction. High recommended!

(As a side-note, I’ve discovered that Vladimir Bortko, who is responsible for the M&M 2005 TV series, also produced an adaptation of this book – that’s the next thing I’ll be looking to track down!!)

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