Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Story Behind The Name

Perhaps some of you have already Googled the title of this blog. But I'm going to tell you the story behind it anyway.

"Manuscripts don't burn" is a quote from Mikhail Bulgakov's book Master and Margarita. Bulgakov's book was only published after his death for a good reason: it could have landed him in prison. During Bulgakov's time, the U.S.S.R government was pretty much like how China is today, practising severe censorship and not allowing criticism of the government in any form, even satire. Most kids nowadays wouldn't understand jokes or allusions to "being shipped off to Siberia" but before the Iron Curtain gave way, it was a very real threat.

Here's an excerpt from the forward to the 1997 translation of the book by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky:

Mikhail Bulgakov worked on this luminous book throughout one of the
darkest decades of the century. His last revisions were dictated to his wife
a few weeks before his death in 1940 at the age of forty-nine. For him,
there was never any question of publishing the novel. The mere existence of
the manuscript, had it come to the knowledge of Stalin's police, would
almost certainly have led to the permanent disappearance of its author.

When the book was finally published nearly three decades after his death, it caused a sensation. Of course, it got banned. But that added more to its appeal and soon "Manuscripts Don't Burn" became a rallying cry for oppressed writers, playwrights and poets. Supposedly writers even memorised their work so as never to fear the authorities seizing their work. Bulgakov himself had to rewrite the novel from memory after he had burnt his draft in a picque of despair.

All that significance went over my head when I was seven, unfortunately. My father passed it to me, knowing that I consumed books like candy and he liked boasting that his little girl was already reading Kipling and Tolstoy. Looking back, I can say that reading the book influenced me more than I realised.

On the surface, it's a fun farce - there's a talking cat, a smarmy Faust-reminiscent Satan, a very down-to-earth Jesus Christ and Pontius Pilate with a migraine. But the heart of it is Bulgakov's very real pain of living in fear, of living where people tried not just to put your body in chains but your mind too.

Spinach7 Digital has a review of it where the writer says:

The point that I sucked out of the novel was this: great literature endures political repression; writers have a responsibility to push on through censorship. Bulgakov was supposed to write a novel that idealised Lenin — instead he coughed up an apocryphal satire featuring a talking cat. ...we have a responsibility to make the most of the opportunities still afforded to us to get our point across — because the way things are going, they may not last. .. ‘freedom of speech’ will be a vague memory, unless we get our words out now. Start by reading this book. Finish by writing your own."

There are people ridiculing what we're doing on this blog. But rather than be defensive, I'd rather keep remembering Bulgakov and all the other writers who suffered for what they wrote. For condoning the undue and unnecessary banning of their writing, it's just a step away from us condoning their getting locked-up. "Manuscripts don't burn." Not if we don't let them.


bibliobibuli said...

didn't know any of this and found it fascinating

we have a good blog name then

F said...

If you burn The Castle by Kafka, will the fire ever stop?

Hansel said...

I love Master and Margarita, but really think Heart of a dog is a lot more critical with comunism system and more explicit in his way to said it. If he had the balls to send heart of a dog to the print, why was he so scared with Master...

I really like Bulgakov, he is one of the best of his century and is sad is not famous enough.

*famous is not the word but i´m spanish and english is not good enough, sorry.

CorvusMeeki said...

I read The Master and Margarita during a riot. I didn't notice the riot. I was 16.

I think that's all I need to say about it.