College senior Dennis Kachintsev has been translating Mikhail Bulgakov‘s The Master and Margarita since the start of his junior year in the hopes of generating more interest in what he considers to be one of the finest novels ever written. He has permitted the language lab to post the first chapter of this work in progress.
Comments are welcome.
…So, what are you?
I am a part of that force
Which always strives to do evil and will always be a force of good.
Don’t Talk to Strangers
Once upon a time in Moscow, on a spring evening of almost uninhabitable heat, two individuals arrived at the Patriarch’s Ponds. The first of these gentlemen was short in stature, portly and bald. He wore a dapper summer suit, carried an expensive hat carefully in hand, and on his clean-shaven face he sported abnormally large glasses with bold black horn-rimmed frames. The other was a young man of solid build and a very unkempt appearance; his sun-bleached hair was disheveled under a cap and he wore a shoddy checkered shirt with unwashed, crinkled white slacks and black slippers.
The former was none other than Mikhail Alexandrovich Berlioz, the head of one of the largest literary associations, (generally referred to with the impressive-sounding abbreviation MASSOLIT), and the head editor of a fine literary magazine. His young compatriot was the poet Ivan Nikolaevich Ponirov, better known by his pen name of Ivan the Homeless.
Once under the lime trees, the two writers immediately beelined for the colorful booth with a sign on it that read “Beer & Beverages”.
Ah yes, it’s important for me to point out the first peculiarity of this ghastly evening. Not a single soul was in sight – not just by the booth, but on the entire alley that runs parallel to the Minor Bronnaya. In that hour, when the air seemed suffocating and there was no more will left to breathe, when the sun, having seared Moscow, came crashing down in a dry haze somewhere behind the Garden Circle Parkway, nobody came to enjoy the trees’ shade, to sit down on the bench beneath them. The alley was completely deserted.
“Some mineral water,” asked Berlioz.
“We’re out of mineral water,” responded the woman in the booth, getting quite offended for some reason.
“What about beer?” asked Ivan hoarsely.
“Beer will be brought later in the evening,” replied the woman.
“What do you have?” asked Berlioz.
“Apricot soda, but it’s warm,”
“Well, what are you waiting for?!”
The soda foamed a rich yellow froth and the air began to smell much like a barbershop. Having drunk their fill, the two writers began hiccupping immediately. They paid for their drinks and sat down on a bench facing the pond and away from the street.
At this point, a second anomaly occurred, specifically to Berlioz. He suddenly stopped hiccuping and felt his heart beat once, and then, momentarily, disappear. When it returned, it was as if blunt needle had been painfully forced into his heart. Furthermore, Berlioz experienced such incomprehensible yet terrible horror, that he wanted nothing more than to run away from the Patriarch’s Ponds and not look back. Uneasily, he looked around, trying to figure out what could have scared him so much. Color drained from his face and he wiped his brow with a handkerchief, wondering what was wrong with him. This never happens… my heart is fluttering, he thought. Perhaps I’ve overworked myself? Maybe it’s time to throw everything to hell and go to Kislovodsk.
Suddenly, the scorching air seemed to condense in front of him, and a most peculiar man seemed to form. This see-through apparition had a jockey’s cap on his disproportionately small head, and he wore an ill-fitting plaid jacket. He was at least seven feet tall, yet slim in the shoulders, deathly skinny, and his expression, please note dear reader, was quite mocking.
Berlioz’s life up until then had proceeded such that fantastical anomalies like these were not commonplace for him. As all of the remaining color drained from his face, he thought to himself, impossible! If only that were true… but it was possible, and this tall, see-through man floated in front of him, gently drifting to the left, and then the right.
Terror seized Berlioz to the point that he shut his eyes very tightly. When he opened them, he saw that everything was over: the mirage had disappeared and the checkered jacket-wearing man was gone. Furthermore, the fear and the pain that had throbbed like a dull needle in his heart had dissipated.
“What in the devil’s name!” exclaimed the editor of a very important journal, “You know Ivan, I think I just had a heat stroke. I even experienced something like a hallucination!”
He tried to chuckle but it got stuck in his throat, and his eyes darted left and right, while his hands were shaking. Eventually, however, he calmed down, wiped off more sweat with his handkerchief and said “Let’s continue…”. They then returned to the conversation that had been interrupted by the apricot juice.
As was discovered later, the conversation was about Jesus Christ. You see, the editor had requested this young poet to write for the next issue a large anti-religious poem. Ivan Nikolaevich had written this poem, and in a very short time, but unfortunately it did not in the least bit satisfy the editor. Ivan had painted the main focus of this poem — Jesus that is — in a very dark light, but it was the view of the editor that the poem had to be completely rewritten. Now, the editor began something reminiscent of a college lecture on the topic of Jesus Christ to aptly highlight the mistakes in the writer’s poem. It’s hard to say what exactly failed the writer- the creative power of his talent or the complete and utter lack of knowledge on the subject matter of the poem- but Jesus in his creation turned out to almost seem as if he had existed, albeit as not a very good person. Berlioz sought to prove to the young author that Jesus had in fact never existed, and all stories about him were just that – stories and unoriginal myths.
It’s true that the editor was a well-read man, and was able to very aptly point to ancient historians like Philo of Alexandria, and the incredibly thorough Titus Flavius Josephus, who not once mentioned even the existence of Jesus. Exhibiting great erudition, Mikhail Alexandrovich reported to the poet that the place in the fifteenth book, the part in the forty fourth chapter of the famous Annals by the senator Tacticus, where he speaks of the execution of Christ, is nothing more than an ancient forgery.
The poet, for whom everything the editor said was news, listened very intently to every word Mikhail Alexandrovich spoke, not taking his eyes off of him, while gently hiccuping and cursing the apricot juice.
“There isn’t a single western religion,” said Berlioz, “in which there isn’t, usually, a chaste woman who brings God to earth, and Christians, unable to come up with something novel, constructed their Jesus Christ, who never actually was alive. This should be the basis of your poem…”
Berlioz’s high tenor carried clearly through the entire empty alley, and the deeper Berlioz got into the readings and methodology — that is only navigable without losing one’s head by the most educated of people — the more the poet learned increasingly interesting and helpful information. For instance about the Egyptian god Osiris, son of Earth and the Sun; about the Phoenician god Tammuz; about Marduk; and even about the lesser known god Huitzilopochtli, who was quite the deity for the Aztecs in Mexico.
At this point, right when Mikhail Alexandrovich was telling the young poet of how the Aztecs would make small figurines of Huitzilopochtli out of dough, the first individual appeared in the alleyway.
Later, when to be perfectly honest it was way too late, different agencies would attempt to coordinate and compile a description of this man. Their attempts were nothing short of baffling. One agency’s description was a short man with gold teeth, who had limped on his right leg. A second claimed he was a man of huge proportions, with platinum teeth and a limp on his left leg. A third would state, with no minced words, that the subject had no distinguishing features.
I must admit, none of these descriptions were sufficient nor correct.
Firstly, the man had no limp, and he was neither tall nor short. Regarding his teeth, the left portion was platinum, and the right side was gold. He was in an expensive grey suit, and shoes, that could not be bought in Russia, of the same color as the suit. He wore his grey beret stylishly pushed to one side. He carried with him a walking stick with a black figure head in the shape of a poodle. If one had to guess, he was around the age of forty. His mouth was somewhat crooked. Clean-shaven. Brunette. His right eye was black, left eye was for some reason green. Eyebrows black, but one is higher than the other. All in all, clearly a foreigner.
As he walked by the bench where the two compatriots were sitting, he eyed them with keen interest, and with a sudden turn sat down on the bench two feet away, directly next to them.
German, thought Berlioz.
Isn’t he hot in those gloves? He must be English, thought Ivan.
Meanwhile, the foreigner was looking around, fascinated with the buildings that encompassed the ponds, and it was evident that he was there for the very first time. His gaze stopped on the highest floors, where the startling reflection of the receding sunlight was forever disappearing from Mikhail Alexandrovich’s life. He then dropped his gaze onto the lower floors, where the darkness of the evening was already creeping into the windows, gave a condescending snort at something he saw, then squinted, put both hands on the head of his cane, and his head on his hands.
“You, Ivan,” Berlioz was saying, “very nicely and satirically depicted, for instance, the virgin birth of Jesus, the son of God, but the gist of it should be that before Jesus, a whole collection of sons of God had been born, like the Phrygian Attis, and when we get right down to it, not a single one of them had a virgin birth, and in fact, not a single one existed, including Jesus. It’s imperative that rather than the birth, your poem focus on the absurd and fallacious rumors spread about Jesus’ birth. Otherwise, some could derive from your poem that the birth actually happened!..”
While this speech was going on, Ivan the Homeless decided to end his insufferable hiccuping and began to hold his breath, but only succeeded in emitting a very violent hiccup. Berlioz had suddenly stopped talking, noticing that the strange foreigner had gotten up and headed in their direction.
“Begging your pardon, gentlemen,” said the man, with a very strong foreign accent, but nevertheless grammatically perfect Russian, “that I, as of yet not known to you, have the audacity to approach you, but the topic of your discussion is so fascinating that…”
He politely crowned his beret, and there was nothing left for the two gentlemen to do but stand up and introduce themselves.
Maybe he’s French? wondered Berlioz to himself.
Is he Polish? guessed Ivan quietly.
It’s interesting to note that from the very first moment that the foreigner came up to them, Ivan the Homeless had a very strong aversion to him, whereas Berlioz liked him. Well, not liked him per se, but, shall we say, was fascinated by him, or something of the sort.
“Will you allow me to sit?” asked the foreigner politely. The two writers could do nothing other than, rather uncomfortably, make room for him. He sat between them and straight away jumped into the discussion.
“Unless I misheard, I believe you were saying that Jesus Christ never existed?” asked the foreigner, directing his question at Berlioz.
“You did not mishear,” said the Berlioz, “that is exactly what I was saying”.
“Fascinating!” exclaimed the stranger.
What in hell’s name does he want? thought Ivan the Homeless, frowning.
“And you were agreeing with your compatriot?” asked the foreigner, turning to Ivan.
“One hundred percent!” exclaimed Ivan, who liked to speak in emphatic terms.
“Marvelous!” exclaimed the unwanted member of the group. He then glanced around and when sure no one could overhear him, said “I apologize for my boldness, but as I understand it you do not believe in God either?” and looking terrified at even the thought of this, swore that he would tell no one.
“Yes, we do not believe in God, but in our great country, we can speak freely about it,” said Berlioz, slightly smiling at the scared antics of the foreigner.
“So… you’re atheists?” said the foreigner in a half-whisper.
“Yes, we are indeed atheists,” said Berlioz, smiling more broadly. Ivan, meanwhile, was getting rather annoyed and thought to himself, why is this crazy old bat so interested in this?
“How curious!” exclaimed the strange foreigner, turning his head to and fro as if the two people around him were a phenomenon he had never seen before.
“There is nothing curious about atheism in Russia. In fact, the majority of the nation no longer believes in God,” responded Berlioz, very diplomatically I might add.
The foreigner then amazed his acquaintances; he jumped out of his seat and grabbed the befuddled editor’s hand and began shaking it quite vigorously.
“Thank you, from all my heart, thank you!”
“What are you thanking him for?” said the thoroughly confused Ivan.
“For an infinitely important piece of information, that is, for me as a traveller, absolutely fascinating,” said the very strange man in a knowing fashion.
It seemed as if that piece of information had indeed made a very big impression on the traveller, because he began looking around frightenedly, as if terrified to see atheists popping out of every door and window.
No, definitely not an Englishman, thought Berlioz, while Ivan the Homeless furrowed his brow and began wondering where the hell this foreigner learned to speak Russian so well.
“But humor me,” the outlander said after some thought, “What do you say to the five proofs of a higher being, the Quinque Viae?”
“None of those proofs are worth the time, and humanity has already discarded them into the archives as cute anecdotes, not philosophically potent arguments. You surely must agree that there is no possibility of there being proof of God!” responded Berlioz.
“Bravo!” yelled the foreigner, “You have almost verbatim quoted the beliefs of the sage Immanuel. He did, however, after invalidating the five proofs, as if to mock himself, construct a different proof to which he could find no argument.”
“Kant’s proof is not satisfactory,” said the well-read Berlioz, “It’s no wonder that Schiller claimed that such a proof could only satisfy a slave, and Strauss simply laughed at the proof.”
All the time he was speaking Berlioz became troubled; who could this foreigner be, and how had he learned to speak Russian so perfectly?
“Kant’s proof is criminal! If it were up to me, I’d take that Kant guy and throw him into the Solovki Prison Camp for a couple years!” yelled Ivan the Homeless suddenly.
“Ivan!” whispered Berlioz, surprised at such an outburst.
The foreigner, nonetheless, was not only in awe of such an idea, but got worked up into a frenzy at the very thought.
“Yes! Exactly!” he started yelling, while his green eye flashed. “Perfect place for him! As I was telling him that time during breakfast, ‘You, Immanuel, have come up with something crazy. It might be thought provoking, but it’s not very coherent. People will laugh!’”
Berlioz was stunned for a second. Breakfast… with Kant? What is he saying?
“But sending him to a prison camp is impossible now, as he for the past hundred years has been in a place a little farther than Solovki. To get him out of there is not within any of our powers, I assure you!” continued the foreigner.
“How unfortunate!” said the oblivious Ivan.
“I agree!” responded the foreigner, eye still flashing. “But here is the question I am most curious about. If God, as you say, does not exist, then who controls the lives of men and the general on-goings of earth?”
“Why, man controls it, of course.” said Ivan the Homeless quickly and angrily at the question that, it must be said, was not very well phrased.
“Forgive me, but I must disagree with you here. To have such power, anyone who wields it must be capable of creating a clear plan for a decent amount of time. How can man, who cannot even develop a clear plan for a laughable amount of time — like a thousand years — but can’t even say without any doubt what he will be doing the very next day?” At this point, the strange man turned to Berlioz.
“For instance, imagine you begin controlling your and others’ destiny, and one bright day *cough, cough* you’re diagnosed with sarcoma of the lungs…” the foreigner smiled sweetly, as if the thought of such a diagnosis brought him profound pleasure, but quickly caught himself and put on a darker expression.
“Ah yes, sarcoma, and your rule is at an end. Nothing except your life interests you. Your friends and family begin lying to you, and you, feeling the impending doom, rush from one doctor to another, getting more and more desperate, to the point where you turn to charlatans and fortune tellers for aid. Not a single one of those help you, and your story ends in tragedy and disappointment; he who presumed to rule lies helplessly and uselessly in a wooden box. Those that surround him, the ones that used to be his friends and family, realize that the man that liesays there is of no use to them, and burn him so he is nothing more than ashes and dust. But this isn’t even the most tragic of possibilities. Things could be much, much worse…” the mysterious man squinted at Berlioz, “imagine a man has his mind set on going to Kislovodsk. This is a simple matter, doesn’t require too much. Even this, however, he is unable to do, as for no discernible reason he slips onto some tracks, right in front of an onrushing trolley. Surely you won’t suggest that this man controlled his own destiny? Isn’t it a more likely assumption that someone else controlled his fate?” said the foreigner, laughing a strange little laugh.
Berlioz listened to both stories with great intent, and dark thoughts began to creep into his mind. He started getting the feeling that this man was not a foreigner at all, but something even more anomalous. What could he be?
“I see you want to smoke,” said the stranger suddenly, turning to Ivan, “what brand do you prefer?”
“You have different ones?” asked Ivan, whose mood was darkening, probably because he had run out of rolling papers and tobacco.
“What brand do you prefer?” repeated the unusual man.
“Well, I prefer ‘Our Brand’ cigarettes,” growled Ivan the Homeless.
Immediately, the stranger pulled out an embossed cigarette case, and with a flourish offered its contents to Ivan.
The two writers were certainly surprised to see that the man just so happened to have ‘Our Brand’ cigarettes, but that surprise paled in comparison to their amazement at the case itself. It was of gargantuan proportions, made of pure gold, and on the inside there sparkled a brilliant white and blue stone cut in the form of a triangle.
The two colleagues thought very different things at this moment. The editor decided that clearly this was a foreigner, and the writer cursed to hell this man’s wealth.
I should argue thusly, thought Berlioz, Indeed, mankind has not conquered death, nobody disputes this. However, what is disputable is…
“Indeed, mankind has not conquered death, but if that was the only issue, it would in itself prove nothing,” said the strange man before Berlioz could utter even a word. “The thing of it is not that man can die, but rather that he can die suddenly, unaware of his impending fate till the very end. In fact, no man can even know what he will be doing, say, this very evening!”
What a strange formulation of a question, thought Berlioz to himself, and responded, “Well that is a bit of an exaggeration. I, for instance, have a fairly good idea of what my evening will be like. Granted, if a brick falls on my head in Bronnaya Avenue, that will undoubtedly change my evening, but…”
“Random bricks do not, without rhyme or reason, fall on anyone’s heads,” said the stranger gravely. “In any case, a brick is not what threatens your livelihood, I assure you. You will die a very different death.”
“I suppose you know exactly what that death will be? Would you care to share?” said Berlioz, his voice dripping with sarcasm. He was becoming aggravated with how ridiculous and wild the conversation was becoming.
“With pleasure!” said the foreigner very animatedly. He then started sizing up Berlioz with his eyes, as if he was a tailor preparing a suit. He muttered something, the only words that the two compatriots caught was something like: “One, two, Mercury is in the Second House… The moon is gone… six… night, misfortune… seven…” and then, almost happily said, “You will be beheaded!”
Ivan stared at the seemingly crazy stranger with a mix of incredulity and anger, while Berlioz smiled sardonically at him.
“By whom, may I ask? Friend or foe? Perhaps by invaders? A scorned lover?” asked Berlioz, barely containing the contempt he had developed for this farcical foreigner.
“None of those. It will be a russian woman, a komsomol member in fact.”
“Hmph.” Berlioz wasn’t the least bit amused anymore by this little joke, especially because it came from a man he didn’t know.
“I find that highly unlikely,” Berlioz said flatly.
“But alas, that is how it shall be!” said the foreigner very earnestly. “Ah yes, I meant to ask you what you planned to do this evening, if you don’t mind my asking.”
“That is no secret. In a little while I will head over to my place, on Garden Street, after which, at ten, I will head over to a MASSOLIT meeting at which I will preside,” responded Berlioz.
“No, that is decidedly impossible,” said the foreigner.
“Why would that be?”
The foreigner looked up into the night sky, and squinted at the stars. Crows that had previously sat calmly in the trees began to feel a chill, probably from the cool night air, and began to fly silently all around the park.
“Because,” said the disquieting man, “Annie has not only bought the sunflower oil, but already spilled it too. Thus, the meeting will not happen.”
This comment was met with a quite appropriate stunned silence.
“I don’t seem to follow. What does sunflower oil have to do with anything… and who is Annie?”
“Here’s what the sunflower oil means,” said Ivan loudly and abrasively, ready to go to war with the stranger. “It means this man is mad. Have you ever been in a madhouse?”
“Ivan!” said Berlioz, quietly attempting to calm his comrade.
The foreigner did not seem the least bit offended however, and laughed uproariously.
“Of course! Of course I have been, and not once either! That being said, where haven’t I been! How unfortunate, that in all my visits I never thought to ask the doctors what the word ‘schizophrenia’ means, so you’ll have to figure that out yourself, Ivan Nikolaevich!”
“How do you know my name?”
“You insult me! Who doesn’t know the great Ivan Nikolaevich Ponirov, or Ivan the Homeless?” and with that, the foreigner took out yesterday’s issue of a literary magazine, on the front page of which were Ivan’s poems, picture and name. Yesterday’s happiness at the success and popularity that came with a front page expose was not replicated at this moment.
“I apologize; would you mind waiting here? I would like to speak to my colleague in private,” said Ivan, grabbing Berlioz and pulling him away.
“Oh, not at all! It’s so nice under these lime trees, and I am in no hurry!” yelled the foreigner after them.
“Listen to me Mikhail, this man is not a tourist, this man is a spy! This is a Russian immigrant, sent back here for information! We need to grab his documents, or else he’ll run away…!” said the poet in an urgent whisper.
“You think so?” said Berlioz, while thinking that it seemed quite plausible.
“Trust me. He’s acting all loony just to drop our guard and ask us something of value,” the writer kept eyeing the man while he spoke, making sure he didn’t run away. “Lets go grab him before he bolts!”
The poet grabbed his editor and dragged him towards the foreigner, who was no longer sitting, but standing. In his hand he held some grey booklet, an envelope made of expensive paper, and a visa.
“I must sincerely apologize that in the heat of the argument I neglected to properly introduce myself. Here is my business card, passport, and invitation to come to Moscow for a consultation.”
This weakened the two writer’s resolve. How the devil did he hear us? wondered Berlioz, and with a polite gesture indicated that there was no need to offer up his documents. While the foreigner was offering his documents to the editor, Ivan was able to see on the business card the word ‘Professor’ and the first letter of his last name, a ‘ß’.
“Pleased to meet you,” mumbled the editor, and the foreigner hid his documents back in his pocket. Tensions eased significantly, and everyone sat back down.
“You’re invited here on a consultant basis, I take it?” asked Berlioz.
“Yes, as a consultant.”
“Are you German?” asked Ivan the Homeless.
“German? Yes, I suppose I am…” replied the foreigner.
“You speak Russian really good,” said the poet.
“Yes, I’m actually a polyglot, and speak a large number of languages quite well.”
“What is your profession?” asked Berlioz.
“I am an expert in the Dark Arts.”
This was not the answer Berlioz expected to ever hear to any question.
“And…and you were asked here, to our country, to consult on this profession?” stammered Berlioz.
“Yes, exactly. In the National Library, works of the warlock Herbert Avrilak have been discovered that date back to the 10th century. It is my job to decipher and catalog these works, as I am the only expert in the world for this particular area.”
“Oh, so you are a historian?” said Berlioz, very relieved.
“Indeed,” said the foreigner, and for no discernible reason added, “tonight, on the Patriarch Ponds, the most remarkable of histories will be made!”
The poet and editor were, not for the first time, left amazed by the professor’s queer proclamations. He, oblivious to their incredulity, motioned them to move closer. As they did, he told them in a hush tone:
“Hear me now, Christ did exist.”
“You see professor,” said Berlioz, smiling gently, “we respect and admire your knowledge and expertise in this field but unfortunately adhere to a different point of view.”
“There’s no need for other points of view!” stated the very strange foreigner, “He just existed, and that’s the end of it!”
“Pardon me, but to definitively say that, there must be some sort of proof…” started Berlioz.
“There’s no need for proof either,” replied the professor, who then started speaking quietly, clearly and without an accent, “In a snowy white cloak…”