Chapter 24

Extraction of the Master

[Izvlechenie Mastera]

the extraction of the master

Tiger in the Desert

History will be the judge

"Manuscripts don't burn."

Even at night in the moonlight I have no peace

deranged citizen holding a suitcase

"No documents, no person."

Annushka the Plague

the extraction of the master--a curious deverbal noun in the Russian title. He is extracted from the insane asylum, from the clutches of the NKVD, eventually from his life in Moscow. The verb is used for pulling out splinters, for extraction of ore, and for derivation of square roots.

Tiger in the Desert: Behemoth's story refers to the an incident in the Bible when Jesus is led to the wilderness and is tempted by Satan. He fasts for forty days and forty nights. Satan said to him, "If you are the Son of God, command these stones to become bread." But Jesus refuses to demonstrate his powers. Satan shows Jesus all the kingdoms of the world and promises Him that they will be His if Jesus will fall on his knees and worship Satan. Jesus refuses and Satan leaves Him. (Matthew 4:1-11)

History will be the judge (the Russian is literally "history will judge us")--of course this phrase literally refers jestingly to Behemoth's lying story, but in the Soviet context and the context of this novel it is more resonant. Official Soviet ideologues rewrote history regularly. There was even a joke that in the West it is hard to predict the future, but in Russia it's even harder to predict the past. And the dissidents' dream was captured in the idea that history would have the last word, and would be on their side. (Manuscripts don't burn). The novel itself is about variants of historical fact, the historicity of the Jesus narrative, the importance of the source, the primacy of literary documents, etc.

"Manuscripts don't burn.": This phrase became a popular saying in the Soviet Union. It was used especially in reference to writers whose works were considered dangerous by the government. Many of these writers never wrote down their stories or poems. They memorized their works so that the police would not find copies of the writings. This method helped preserve their stories for years. As a result, "manuscripts don't burn" because no matter what happens to the written copy of the work, it will always exist in the mind of its author.

Even at night in the moonlight I have no peace The master here quotes his own hero, Pilate, and repeats his gesture of wringing his hands. This is one of the keys to the similarity of the two "heroes," neither of whom is heroic in the traditional sense. In fact, both are cowards of a sort.

deranged citizen holding a suitcase--Aloisy has been brought out of his apartment in the middle of the night. Naturally he assumes he is being taken by the NKVD. Many people kept suitcases of warm clothes ready under their beds in case the knock at the door came for them.

"No documents, no person.": During the Soviet period, well-ordered documents kept citizens to out of trouble. Documents recorded places of residence, nationality, occupation. Seals, dates, and official language were essential, as Nikolai Ivanovich's certificate demonstrates. Being without documents it could mean trouble with the police. Documents were literally a matter of life and death in the Soviet period. The same concept can be found in earlier anti-bureaucratic works of 19th century writers like Saltykov-Shchedrin and Sukhovo-Kobylin. In Yury Tynianov's "Lieutenant Kizhe," one living man is not perceived by others because his documents declare him dead, while Lieutenant Kizhe is invented out of the slip of a pen and is promoted in his work.