The Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov doesn't lend itself to summary, it throws a lot at the reader and keeps you off balance. A summary would probably be more confusing than anything else. Depending on what you have seen or heard, the devil is involved and a cat somehow plays a significant role. Also Soviet Russia, and whomever those title characters are, which -- like in the story -- I won't get to until later. But I'd like to write about technique, because the way Bulgakov has put together this story is enough to recommend in itself.
So, the lot of it. To start, there are a lot of characters -- including a Nikanor Ivanovich, a Nikolai Ivanovich and an Ivan Nikolaevich none of any relation to the others -- and it takes a while to try to sort out who is important and who isn't. Indeed, the important characters show up pretty late. We meet Berlioz right away and spend much of the first 50 pages with him, but then he is dispatched with. We don't even meet Margarita until more than halfway through the book! This isn't a critique. As I've said, the way Bulgakov withholds information makes the book exciting, we don't know what to make of this devil, and everything proceeds with this air of menace, especially when it touches characters we actually care about.
Lending to that menace, the first 200 pages seem to take from Kafka as much as Goethe, who comes up frequently in the footnotes. Nobody called for the devil -- not intentionally anyhow -- and mostly people want to get away from him. The punishments seem arbitrary at first and are convoluted. The devil and his crew are not above threats of violence but they seem to prefer going through official channels. It's surprising that Bulgakov was able to publish, even if he leaves the most unsavory aspects of Soviet life merely implied. The point is, there's no evil bargain, the devil here is more trickster than tempter.
The ensemble in The Master and Margarita is unlike others I have come across, like Anna Karenina or even The Corrections, in which individual characters or plots occupy distinct tracks. In some stories they kind of balloon, the characters start together then go off in different directions and finally collide again at the end. In others, say in Anna Karenina, they sort of orbit each other, Anna's story and Levin's don't seem to affect each other, though they do both serve certain thematic elements.
The Master and Margarita makes sense more as one of those perspective statues that are assembled from junk but at the perfect angle create some cohesive image. Here, the devil roams around menacing various bureaucrats in what at times feels like a series of vignettes. One chapter is even called "Hapless Visitors" which just sounds like a bunch of unrelated stories. But the devil also links them, forming a center from which all these stories spring, and back to which they ultimately point us, before the design starts to bear out in Book 2. Saying he is the center seems a weird way to phrase things, but it would be wrong to say the story is about the devil. The perspective is usually tied to the people he encounters and the story does seem to belong to the Master, Margarita and Homeless than to Woland (the devil), but he is more present. He is what happens to the protagonists, and all of Moscow.
Seen from the end The Master and Margarita is a much more structured and complete novel than it sometimes feels while you're reading it, but you don't have to get there to enjoy it. The story is fun throughout, mischievous and funny, and melancholy enough to give it weight.
Four and a half stars. This feels a bit generous but I'm in a generous mood, and it's a book I would like to read again, which says a lot.