Inspired by Mikhail Bulgakov’s classic, Master and Margarita, in Mikhail and Margarita, Julie Lekstrom Himes tells a tale of enduring love: what threatens and what saves it. (Is it coincidence that both Bulgakov and Himes are physicians and novelists?) Satan figures prominently in Bulgakov’s original novel. In Hime’s novel, Party official Ilya Ivanovich plays the part of the evil tempter luring Margarita away from one form of imprisonment to another. Meanwhile, satirist Mikhail Bulgakov, her lover and the reason for her imprisonment, tries to rescue her himself. This love triangle tells us not only about the devotion and betrayal between the participants, but the risky act of writing that engages them all in the first place.
Mikhail and Ilya aren’t the only ones who love Margarita. Almost everyone who meets her falls for her. Bulgakov becomes smitten when he first meets her as his friend’s mistress. Her bunk-mate at the women’s work camp becomes attached to her and the guards show attraction, too. We don’t know much about her. She is gaunt and assertive, but kind and vulnerable, too. She works at a newspaper and, even though she doesn’t know why, she prefers writers to anyone else, which begs the question, “what is it about Margarita?”
Himes provides clues to Margarita’s key role in the drama with her choppy prose and curt dialogue. Many sentences come across as interruptions, like the bugs and other creepy- crawlies that make several unexpected appearances throughout the book. The effect is of constant suspense. I read with my face close to the page, nervous not to miss any tiny detail that might jump out at me. “Quite suddenly, her skin prickled; to the far right, along the distant wall, she caught the movement of an animal, a large rat, making its way along the silvery floor” (147). Margarita, like the bugs that fall from the ceiling onto the table, or the drowning boy she catches in the corner or her eye, represents those overlooked, undervalued, marvelous paradoxes worth fighting for. She ignites something in both men and women that gives them a reason to keep going.
Philosopher Hannah Arendt, a contemporary of Bulgakov, said that only good is radical; not evil. Evil is banal and has no core. It is nothingness. It reduces humans while good elevates and can be pursued to its depths. Both are exemplified in Hime’s superb novel. “She reached across the dark car toward Ilya; her fingers stopped short of him. Why Bulgakov? She thought back to Patriarch’s Ponds [where she first met him] – had he known then? Before everything, had she known of those things of which she could be capable? She withdrew her hand. Write your most flawed character, she wished to him so far away. She squeezed her eyes shut until the darkness turned red. She strengthened her prayer. Tell all of humanity and write your grandest villain, your most foul sinner. Write as though mankind depended on this. And render some parcel of that humanity for me” (338). Literature is means both to explore moral extremes as well as to create new possibilities of which we become the products. Like Margarita, beloved of two main characters and others, we, too, are rendered a parcel of humanity in the gift of Himes’ writing.