J. Steinbuks

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Reviews of my favorite books. Sources: Amazon, and the Wikipedia.

Author: Mikhail Bulgakov

Surely no stranger work exists in the annals of protest literature than The Master and Margarita. Written during the Soviet crackdown of the 1930s, when Mikhail Bulgakov's works were effectively banned, it wraps its anti-Stalinist message in a complex allegory of good and evil. Or would that be the other way around? The book's chief character is Satan, who appears in the guise of a foreigner and self-proclaimed black magician named Woland. Accompanied by a talking black tomcat and a "translator" wearing a jockey's cap and cracked pince-nez, Woland wreaks havoc throughout literary Moscow. First he predicts that the head of noted editor Berlioz will be cut off; when it is, he appropriates Berlioz's apartment. (A puzzled relative receives the following telegram: "Have just been run over by streetcar at Patriarch's Ponds funeral Friday three afternoon come Berlioz.") Woland and his minions transport one bureaucrat to Yalta, make another one disappear entirely except for his suit, and frighten several others so badly that they end up in a psychiatric hospital. In fact, it seems half of Moscow shows up in the bin, demanding to be placed in a locked cell for protection.

Meanwhile, a few doors down in the hospital lives the true object of Woland's visit: the author of an unpublished novel about Pontius Pilate. This Master--as he calls himself--has been driven mad by rejection, broken not only by editors' harsh criticism of his novel but, Bulgakov suggests, by political persecution as well. Yet Pilate's story becomes a kind of parallel narrative, appearing in different forms throughout Bulgakov's novel: as a manuscript read by the Master's indefatigable love, Margarita, as a scene dreamed by the poet--and fellow lunatic--Ivan Homeless, and even as a story told by Woland himself. Since we see this narrative from so many different points of view, who is truly its author? Given that the Master's novel and this one end the same way, are they in fact the same book? These are only a few of the many questions Bulgakov provokes, in a novel that reads like a set of infinitely nested Russian dolls: inside one narrative there is another, and then another, and yet another. His devil is not only entertaining, he is necessary: "What would your good be doing if there were no evil, and what would the earth look like if shadows disappeared from it?"

Unsurprisingly--in view of its frequent, scarcely disguised references to interrogation and terror--Bulgakov's masterwork was not published until 1967, almost three decades after his death. Yet one wonders if the world was really ready for this book in the late 1930s, if, indeed, we are ready for it now. Shocking, touching, and scathingly funny, it is a novel like no other. Woland may reattach heads or produce 10-ruble notes from the air, but Bulgakov proves the true magician here. The Master and Margarita is a different book each time it is opened.



Author: Erich Maria Remarque

"If things went according to the death notices, man would be absolutely perfect. There you find only first-class fathers, immaculate husbands, model children, unselfish, self-sacrificing mothers, grandparents mourned by all, businessmen in contrast with whom Francis of Assisi would seem an infinite egoist, generals dripping with kindness, humane prosecuting attorneys, almost holy munitions makers - in short, the earth seems to have been populated by a horde of wingless angels without one's having been aware of it."

The Black Obelisk paints a portrait of Germany in the early 1920's, a period marked by hyper-inflation and rising nationalism.

Ludwig, the protagonist, is in his early 20's and he, just like most of his friends, is a World War I veteran. Although aspiring to be a poet, he works for a friend, Georg, managing the office of a small tombstone company. He tries to earn some extra money as a private tutor to a son of a bookstore owner, and by playing the organ at the chapel of a local insane asylum.

Thanks to this diversity of activities, Ludwig interacts with a wide cross-section of the German population of his town and the surrounding villages and we are allowed to witness those interactions. We see, for example, businessmen -- some trying to stick to the old principles and going bankrupt, others speculating on stocks, exploiting the system and becoming rich in morally ambiguous ways. We see war veterans -- some highly critical of the old ways that led them to a failed war, others longing for the old days of military discipline and turning into inflexible nationalists hailing the virtues of their rising leader, Adolf Hitler.

A lot of events are connected to women. Two of them leave Ludwig, just because he cannot float in the contemporary world of greed and money. He chose to stay "clean", maybe not by himself, but he cannot be anything other than true to his ideals and now he has to live with that choice.

We also meet Isabelle, a patient at the insane asylum. Ludwig's long conversations with her give Remarque an opportunity to embark on long philosophical debates about life -- these long dialogues are probably the least enticing part of the book. But they are usually followed by much more concrete and interesting conversations with the head doctor and the priest working at the asylum.

Author: Ludmila Ulitskaya

Daniel Stein is at once a skillfully crafted literary roman epistolaire, a philosophical tale, a profound historical survey and an entertaining piece of fiction. It covers wide geographical areas - Germany, Israel, the US, Russia - and dramatic historical epochs - from the Second World War in Warsaw to modern Israel. It enters into deep historical detail: the tragedy of Holocaust, the rise and fall of Communism and, even more important, it gives a new reading to the role of Christianity. Far from being commonplace this novel breaks new ground and ventures boldly into a new literary spaces pulling down many established rules of literary form along the way.

The book is constructed as a patchwork of private histories recounted through the letters, personal diaries, taped conversations and a liberal supply of official notes, interrogation reports, documents and letters of formal complaints to the authorities. The element that links all of theses sources, the core of this multi-faceted narrative gem, is the story of Daniel Stein, the common thread woven throughout the lives of each of the book's characters.

It is interesting to note that Ludmila Ulitskaya drew her inspiration for Daniel Stein from a story from the Bible, the story in which, on Pentecostal Sunday, the apostles are granted the gift to speak languages that were before unknown to them. Daniel's ability and willingness to speak with everyone is his true language - a symbol of love, humanity, and tolerance. Ulitskaya beautifully renders the life, the extraordinary warmth and humanness of this modern saint, who inevitably ends his life as a martyr, the victim of his own will to help others at all costs.