24. The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov
I'd received this from Bookmooch some time ago, but never got to it before leaving for Spain. Bulgakov apparently reached cult status in Russia, due to this twentieth century Soviet era novel. He does not seem to be as well known in the US, but probably not among the ranks of the most obscure either.
My summary of this book could be one sentence: The devil pays a visit to Moscow. The devil is actually in the details. Bulgakov was writing while highly aware of the probable censorship he would receive. The book can be abstract and surreal a lot of the time, but the writing itself is straight forward, which is really all I ask. The important comparisons and allusions being made here, I would say, are in the 'feel' of the book.
At first, the characters who encounter the devil or supernatural occurrences are not believed by the public or authorities, and the smart ones say nothing as they know sticking their necks out will only result in unpleasant investigations and interrogations. Plenty of this goes on, before the police, who are really only lesser devils in the characters' lives, decide they have a 'case' and try to figure out what is really going on. The irony, and strange feeling that builds, is that the devil coming to Soviet Moscow is really not so hard to believe at all. It's really not that more terrible or unusual than your neighbors spying on you or people being carted away in the middle of the night, never to return. Whatever the devils can do, it may be extraordinary, but is it really worse? What is really more odd or unnatural?
There's also a side story, being written by the main character, the Master, about Pontius Pilate. The story interests the devil extremely. The point of that seems to be about the eternal balance of good and evil. Is the tired Pilate, "the wicked procurator of Judea," really so different from Yeshua ha-Notsri, the peace-advocating philosopher?
The Master and Margarita got much more exciting in the second half, while the first part is more of a build up. Bulgakov also has a much more abstract style than the nineteenth century Russian greats, but the times he was living in were quite different.