Monday, December 30, 2019

Weapon Of Choice

After a very long wait, I've finally returned to The Culture novels by Iain Banks. A work colleague has long been encouraging me to read Use Of Weapons, and it also appeared on a list of recommendations from China Mieville, prompting me to return to this science fiction world. I had thought that this was the first book in the series, but now that I'm writing this post I'm realizing that it's actually the third, whoops. Fortunately The Culture is more about a universe with more-or-less independent stories, so reading out of order isn't a major problem.


It's been so long since I read Look To Windward that I've forgotten almost all the details of that plot, but I do remember The Culture itself. It's a vast and powerful amalgamation of various humanoid and alien species, including governmental and quasi-military organizations. It is basically run by a large group of powerful artificial intelligences, which are usually loaded onto large starships, which in turn are maintained by organic citizens. The scope of the Culture spans the entire universe, which is far too vast and complex for any biological brain to track, and so they have built these machines to run things. The machines were originally built by people, and the values of the Culture are ostensibly more or less benevolent: they prize peace, prosperity, diversity, nature. But there's definitely a disconnect between the AIs and the people: the attitude of the machines tends to be indulgent, and maybe just a little patronizing, while remaining helpful. It's an odd relationship; I don't know if it's exactly symbiotic, since I suspect that by this point the AIs would be capable of just doing everything themselves; but most of what they're interested in are the messy and irrational situations caused by organic life not yet absorbed into The Culture, and so people remain a useful part of the society.

This book felt oddly difficult to read for the first half or so. Two of the main characters are special agents who change their identity from one mission to the next, which means changing their names, which makes it hard to keep people straight; it took me a while to realize that various characters were actually the same person, and which person in one scene was which person in another scene.

This is compounded by the disordered chronology, which jumps around in time from chapter to chapter. There is what I think of as the "main" storyline, which does proceed linearly, but I think that the other chapters are told in a random order, and even after finishing the book I'm not totally clear on the exact sequence of everything that has happened to Zakalwe. While reading the book I thought that the structure seemed strongly inspired by Catch-22, but to less good of a purpose: where the chaos of Catch-22 led to an eventual dramatic reveal that showed the origins of Yossarian's mental illness, the timeline of Use Of Weapons appeared to be needlessly complex for no good reason.


But, in the end, it does turn out to have a purpose, and a genuinely surprising one at that. Various threads from throughout the book, most notably Zakalwe's aversion to chairs, are finally explained, and everything that has happened before is now recast in a different light. Even my gripes with the confusing character names seem to be justified by the central assumed identity and deliberate confusion around names.

I do kind of wish that we had seem more of Sma in this book; she was such a fun character, and since her scenes were front-loaded I was kind of expecting her to be the protagonist. Her interactions with Skaffen-Amtiskaw were especially funny. And actually, despite the grimly macabre secret buried in the center of the novel, it also has some of the funnier bits I've recently read in science fiction. I think my favorite low-key joke is that one of the strongest intergalactic star cruisers is named the Just Testing, which made me giggle every time it is mentioned.


This was a fun and oddly surprising book. It felt like a slight slog for a stretch, but once everything came together it was nicely satisfying. I don't feel hugely compelled to immediate consume the remaining Culture novels, but am looking forward to picking off some more in the future.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Manuscripts Don't Burn

The Master and Margarita is one of the oddest books I've read. The subject matter itself is somewhat bizarre, a kind of realistic phantasmagoria that plops demonic forces into the literary world of Stalin's Soviet Union. But it's also one of the more unusually structured books I've read; it's easy to read and follow, but has a very unique form and does not play out as you would expect. It was a fully surprising book, and those surprises are just part of the delight of reading it.


The titular heroine Margarita doesn't appear until halfway through the book, and the never-named master only makes a token appearance before then. Most of the action throughout the entire novel instead revolves around Woland, aka the Devil, who appears in 1930s Moscow and leaves a trail of chaos in his wake. Interestingly, Woland spends relatively little time on-page; instead, we mostly see the work of his retinue of demonic followers, most memorably including Behemoth, a man-sized cat who walks around, spars with people (verbally and otherwise), and attempts to hitch a ride on a tram-car.

This novel is thoroughly ridiculous, repeatedly mining comic gold from the juxtaposition of obviously supernatural elements against the thoroughly atheistic Soviet society. Apoplectic people (shopkeepers, critics, waiters, apartment managers, accountants) start out believing in rational norms, only to be confronted and often destroyed by the capricious nihilism of their tormentors. We as readers are startled, too, by shocking dialogue; there's far too much to quote here, but my favorite single line probably is this one spoken by the master on page 138, describing his first meeting with the not-yet-named Margarita: "Love leaped out in front of us like a murderer in an alley leaping out of nowhere, and struck both of us at once. As lightning strikes, as a Finnish knife strikes!"

The book opens with an epigraph from Faust, in which the devil defines himself as "Part of that power which eternally wills evil and eternally works good." The original Faustian tale often fits within a Christian cosmology, where Satan is a force for evil but is fully contained by God's will, and thus ultimately serving a greater good. It's... challenging to apply that reading to this book. There are certain specific scenes where you can see Woland's antics as ironically punishing some sin or making some point; for example, a manager accepts a bribe, and then is immediately reported to the secret police and punished for hoarding foreign currency; or a woman exchanges her practical clothing for flattering foreign fashions, only to have those clothes later disappear and leave her naked. Incidents like that make a certain amount of sense, with the devil offering traditional temptations, people falling prey to sins of greed or vanity or whatever, and then being punished for their sins.

But, those encounters are vastly outnumbered by ones in which people are just trying to get through their day and finish their menial jobs, only to be cruelly (if humorously) humiliated and injured by Woland's posse. There's no sense in the torments visited upon people who seem to have done nothing wrong. The ultimate effect is one of danger, of always looking over your shoulder, never feeling secure. I suspect this is one of many ways in which this was a satire of daily life under Stalin.

For most of the novel, Woland's power seems unmatched, even unopposed. The power of the state is strangely absent, and no beneficial supernatural forces appear to counter his malevolent ones. That said, the novel does acknowledge the devil's adversary... but, again, not in at all the way you would expect.

Interleaved with the Moscow story are occasional chapters from another story: the story of the Procurator of Judea, Pontius Pilate. Following his perspective, we witness the judgment and execution of Jesus - here named Yeshua Ha-Nozri. And... it's odd. The way Ha-Nozri speaks and presents himself isn't at all what we would expect from the Gospel story, or even from popular secular interpretations of the biblical story. He is agitated, ingratiating, worried. Seeming to trip over his own words, he tells Pilate that there's this guy, this tax collector named Matthew, who's been following him around and writing down everything he says, only he's getting it all wrong, and putting words in Ha-Nozri's mouth that he never said, causing a big misunderstanding that Pilate could totally solve if he wanted to. So, it seems like Ha-Nozri is just a man swept up in events that he can't stop, somewhat like Brian Cohen from the Monty Python film.

But, it isn't that simple. As he talks more with Pilate, we learn that Ha-Nozri really does have prophetic powers: he knows things about Pilate that nobody else could possibly know, including his past, future and innermost hopes and fears. And Pilate sees that Ha-Nozri does fervently believe in the value of mens' souls, in their capacity for goodness, in the importance of love.

The end result is intriguing and a little discombobulating, a fine mixture of history, theology and fiction. Ha-Nozri pleads for his life and attempts to deal with Pilate; but he also predicts Pilate's eventual fate, eternally remembered daily by billions of people reciting the Apostle's Creed. Ha-Nozri isn't omniscient, but is prophetic; isn't omnipotent, but seems to be unwittingly propelling broader events. The dynamic between Roman occupiers, the figurehead Herodic state, the caste of priestly elite, rebellious zealot faction and broader Israeli population all feels accurate and authentic, while all of the details are off, not least Pilate ultimately acting as a Godfather-esque potentate carrying out an elaborate revenge plot to assassinate Judas.

The status of this Pilate story morphs and evolves as the Moscow story progresses. Initially it is told by Woland as history: essentially "I was there, I know what was real, your atheism is wrong." But it's presented as a separate standalone chapter, not as dialogue delivered by Woland, and thus seems to carry much more empirical weight: this is narration, not dialogue, something that happened. Returning to the present, his listeners seem dumbfounded, deeply affected by this strange and compelling tale.

As the story continues, we gradually come to learn that the Pilate story is actually the novel that was written by the master, for which he was mocked, stripped of his connections and ultimately sent to an insane asylum. It's the same story that Margarita cherishes. It's both past and future: Margarita dearly wants to see the story finished, to read how it ends, and that yearning is intertwined with her passionate desire to be physically and intellectually reunited with her beloved.


Margarita makes a very late entrance in the book, but it is a stunning one, and within a few chapters Bulgakov somehow manages to outdo the already outstanding zany anarchy of the book. Margarita soars on a broom, witch-like and invisible, through the city streets, smashing windows as she goes, causing a plumbing catastrophe for the magazine editor she despises, chortling and cackling with fearless glee.

I think that at some level I kept trying to impose some framework of morality on this book, or to divine what morality it is trying to espouse, but have been thoroughly thwarted, and Margarita is probably the best example of such. She willingly enters Woland's service, ultimately performing in an astonishingly sinister ball of the damned, warmly greeting the most wicked people of history. And, when asked for her reward, she casually asks for mercy for one particular woman who has been unfairly punished. And then follows that up by asking to rejoin the master. It feels like she's somehow thoroughly inhabiting this evil world while not being thoroughly corrupted by it; and not because she's a good or virtuous person. Much as there's no reason for all the havoc wracked upon the innocent of Moscow, there's no reason for... well, anything that happens with Margarita. But she's thoroughly happy, laughingly shrugging off the indignities she endures, calmly looking the devil in the eye, and content to simply be back in a grubby basement apartment with the man she loves.

And then they both die. The ending is really intriguing, providing few answers but lots of fodder for speculation, as the disparate threads of the Pilate story and the Moscow story are woven together again. Matthew appears: not the serene saint of the church, but the harried fanatic of Ha-Nozri. There's a command, or maybe it's a negotiation, or maybe a statement. It seems like the epigraph was correct after all, and the devil does eternally carry out God's will. Maybe.

"Thus spoke Margarita, walking with the master towards their eternal home, and it seemed to the master that Margarita's words flowed in the same way as the stream they had left behind flowed and whispered, and the master's memory, the master's anxious, needled memory began to fade. Someone was setting the master free, as he himself had just set free the hero he had created." (p. 384)

I mean... that "someone" is Bulgakov, right? The master is a sub-creator, an author who wrote the story of Pontius Pilate, and sets him free at the end of the novel, just as Bulgakov is setting the master free at the end of his own, the book we're reading now. Like nesting dolls.

It sounds as if the master and Margarita are being punished, perhaps. But they seem to be pleased with their fate, more or less. Pilate suffered the gross indignity he feared, but he's spending eternity with a dog who loves him, so maybe that's all right. It's all very detailed and very abstract, spiritual and human, not quite like anything else I've read.


As you might imagine from a Russian-language classic first published behind the Iron Curtain, The Master and Margarita has appeared in a variety of translations over the years. I read the 50th anniversary Penguin edition, translated by Pevear and Volokhonsky; it has a different cover than the one above, but I just couldn't resist putting that bizarre cat in this post.

Literary books like this have a certain degree of detritus they carry with them, forewords and introductions that can be copyrighted, footnotes or endnotes that the translators leave behind. I'm always on the fence about whether to read these or skip over them. I slightly wish that I had opted to skip them this time, as a few delightful surprises of the novel were pre-emptively revealed. But it was utterly fascinating to read about the real-world story of how this book was composed, at the height of Stalin's purges, with Bulgakov fearing for his life and personally pleading with Stalin to either embrace him or exile him. And maybe even more remarkable to hear about the sensation the book made when it was belatedly published thirty years later, astonishing the Russian intelligentsia with its blunt allusions to state-sponsored killings and disappearances.

The end-notes are great, though: brief and focused and illuminating. The chapters are short enough that I would often complete one and then scan through all its endnotes at once, quickly gaining some appreciation for the history or language on display.

The Master and Margarita is a really hard book to categorize: autocratic slapstick, sacrilegious comedy, literary satire, subversive crime novel. The introduction sums it up well by calling it magical realism, but noting that it's significantly funnier than the more widely-known South American school. This is a book with few or no lessons for us, but it demands attention and offers many tempting rewards.