Why would the Kyiv-born author of The Master and Margarita take on Don Quixote? Scholars Scott Pollard ’81 and Margarita Marinova set out to answer that, translating and explicating Mikhail Bulgakov’s version of the play Don Quixote. By the 1930s, nothing Bulgakov wrote could be published or staged in Stalin’s Soviet Union. Yet he saw himself as a playwright.
Writer John Deever interviewed Scott Pollard. Here Pollard describes the parallels between Cervantes and Bulgakov—a “fellow sufferer, tragically familiar with social and political attempts to control the creative imagination.”
Up until publication of the first volume of Don Quixote, Cervantes’ life was dominated by failure. He did not receive much of a formal education. As a soldier in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), he is wounded in the right hand and loses the use of it for the rest of his life; after the battle, on his way back to Spain, Cervantes is kidnapped by Algerian pirates, and it takes five years for him to be ransomed back home. Back home in Madrid, Cervantes attempts to become a playwright and fails. He reenlists in the army, becomes a requisitions officer, and is jailed for embezzlement. He goes bankrupt, is excommunicated, and finds himself in debtor’s prison, where he begins Don Quixote. The novel is pirated, and Cervantes makes little money from it. A second volume is written by someone else, Fernández de Avellaneda, in 1614, to capitalize on the original’s popularity.
Bulgakov’s career was also marked by failure. Although he began his literary life as a successful playwright and novelist, he quickly ran afoul of the Soviet censors and Stalin. His plays were either pulled quickly from the stage or not produced.
Bulgakov and his work represent the individual—particularly, the creative artist—struggling against but stymied and silenced by social, political, and historical forces. The Master and Margarita is an amazing story—a fantasy really—about the creative artist’s ability to challenge and triumph over an oppressive world. Conversely, Bulgakov’s adaptation of Don Quixote is, in part, about the creative artist coming to terms with his limited power to challenge and overcome systematic oppression. It is Bulgakov’s swan song. Bulgakov and his work—that’s the story of the underdog, successful or not, to which everyone is attracted. It is a story that is as true for Ukraine’s current struggle with Russia as it was for the abuses of Stalinist Russia.
Anyone familiar with Mikhail Bulgakov’s banned classic Master and Margarita knows of his love for the theatre and its magical, often dark spectacle. His life held more drama in several senses of the word than perhaps he wished. He narrowly avoided the gulag or worse as a consequence of what he wrote. Despite a small-minded, vicious critical reception and unrelenting censors, he continued to write because, as one translator, Mirra Ginsburg, put it “to him impossibility to write was tantamount to being buried alive.”
Less well known than Bulgakov’s novels are his theatrical works. By the 1930s nothing he wrote was permitted to be published or staged. Yet he saw himself as playwright, and in a different historical era he might very likely have been known primarily as one.
Scott Pollard ’81 and colleague Margarita Marinova recently explicated and translated Bulgakov’s version of the play Don Quixote—what Pollard calls “an adaptation … more than a repetition of Cervantes’ text.” An English major and Spanish minor, Pollard moved on to UC Irvine for a Ph.D. in comparative literature after leaving the Mission campus. He is a professor of English at Christopher Newport University, Newport News, Virginia.
Here is more from Pollard’s discussion of Bulgakov and Cervantes with John Deever.
SCM: You come to the Bulgakov version of Don Quixote with a background in the original. What interested you in the adaptation by this then-banned Soviet writer?
SCOTT POLLARD: In October 2005, I was eating lunch in my office and skimming the newspaper El Universal (Mexico) online and discovered an article on the annual Cervantes Festival in Guanajuato, which announced that to celebrate the 400th anniversary of the publication of the first volume of Cervantes’ Don Quixote the festival was putting on a newly translated dramatic adaptation of Quixote by Russian author Mikhail Bulgakov. I told my colleague, Margarita Marinova, a Russian specialist, and she enthused about Bulgakov, who is one of her favorite writers. I knew Bulgakov’s name but had not read him. At Margarita’s suggestion, I read The Master and Margarita. I was hooked.
Bulgakov adapted Don Quixote at the same time he was, quixotically, writing The Master and Margarita, which he knew would not be published, at least not in Stalinist Russia.
I have loved Latin American literature since my time at Santa Clara, particularly the magic realists—Jorge Luis Borges, Gabriel García Márquez. The Master and Margarita is an amazing magic real novel. Even though it is set in Soviet Russia, the novel felt very familiar. The wonders of world literature in translation: that authors and literary works can communicate across time, cultures, and languages. Once I read The Master and Margarita, I was completely invested in the Don Quixote project.
SCM: Your introduction notes that Bulgakov turned down offers to write scripts for other dramatic adaptations. Why do you think Bulgakov agreed to write a version of this one?
POLLARD: Don Quixote has occupied an important place in the Russian imagination since it was first translated in the eighteenth century. Besides translations of the novel, there have been other dramatic adaptations, films, a ballet. Ivan Turgenev’s 1860 essay “Hamlet and Don Quixote” makes the Russian fascination with Don Quixote clear:
All men live (consciously or otherwise) by virtue of certain principles, certain ideals, in a word, by virtue of what they deem true, beautiful, good, and so on. Many take their ideals intact from specific, historically sanctioned institutions. They thrive by conforming their lives to the vision it offers. Sometimes, driven by passion or contingency, such a man may stray, but he neither ponders nor doubts.
It is this quixotic attitude that Bulgakov also found appealing. Bulgakov adapted Don Quixote at the same time that he was, quixotically, writing The Master and Margarita, which he knew would not be published, at least not in Stalinist Russia. The symbiotic relationship between Cervantes’ famous character and Bulgakov’s experience as a writer made the choice of adapting Don Quixote a natural.
SCM: You write that Cervantes’ Don Quixote must have had “special resonances” with Bulgakov—that Bulgakov was a “fellow sufferer, tragically familiar with social and political attempts to control the creative imagination.” What are some of the parallels in their lives that suggested this to you?
POLLARD: Up until the publication of the first volume of Don Quixote, Cervantes’ life was dominated by failure. As a child, Cervantes’ family moved frequently because his father, a surgeon, was avoiding malpractice suits. As a result, Cervantes did not receive much of a formal education. As a soldier in the Battle of Lepanto (1571), he is wounded in the right hand and loses the use of it for the rest of his life; after the battle, on his way back to Spain, Cervantes is kidnapped by Algerian pirates, and it takes five years for him to be ransomed back home. Back home in Madrid, Cervantes attempts to become a playwright and fails. He reenlists in the army, becomes a requisitions officer, and is jailed for embezzlement. He goes bankrupt, is excommunicated, and finds himself in debtor’s prison, where he begins Don Quixote. Even after the publication of Quixote, failure is prominent in Cervantes’ life. Because of lack of copyright laws, the novel is pirated, and Cervantes makes little money from it. A second volume is written by someone else, Fernández de Avellaneda, in 1614, to capitalize on the original’s popularity. Avellaneda’s volume, fortunately, forces Cervantes to publish his own second volume in 1615; unfortunately, dying in 1616, Cervantes does not live long enough to see its success.
Bulgakov’s career was also marked by failure. Although he began his literary life as a successful playwright and novelist, he quickly ran afoul of the Soviet censors and Stalin. His plays were either pulled quickly from the stage or not produced. Nothing Bulgakov wrote is either staged or published through the decade of the 1930s. When Bulgakov applies to emigrate, Stalin himself convinces Bulgakov to stay and arranges a theatrical job for him, but not one that gave him the creative outlet he craved. Essentially, Bulgakov was not able to earn a living from his creative work.
SCM: Bulgakov’s work, including this play, seems to me to be so steeped in the 1930s, a really awful time for so many people in the Soviet Union. For you, what in his writing echoes across the decades?
POLLARD: To put it simply, Bulgakov and his work represent the individual—particularly, the creative artist—struggling against but stymied and silenced by social, political, and historical forces. The Master and Margarita is an amazing story—a fantasy really—about the creative artist’s ability to challenge and triumph over an oppressive world. Conversely, Bulgakov’s adaptation of Don Quixote is, in part, about the creative artist coming to terms with his limited power to challenge and overcome systematic oppression. It is Bulgakov’s swan song. Bulgakov and his work is the story of the underdog, successful or not, to which everyone is attracted. It is a story that is as true for Ukraine’s current struggle with Russia as it was for the abuses of Stalinist Russia. The parallel to Cervantes and Don Quixote are pretty obvious; both have remained potent cultural forces for over 400 years because of the same struggling underdog narrative.
SCM: Perhaps no other work has so effectively portrayed and inspected utterly intense and unrelenting self-deception. I can see how that might appeal to an author in Stalinist Russia.
POLLARD: Don Quixote is not simply about a single man’s deluded behavior. Rather, as Cervantes has Don Quixote hit the road, in both Volumes 1 and 2, he uncovers a society that is full of delusions and deluded people. Lots of characters in the novel make an art of self-deception. In essence, for Cervantes, 17th-century Spanish society mirrors Quixote all too closely. The novel is an unrelenting social critique. Yes, Bulgakov was attracted to Cervantes’s achievement and attempted to replicate it.
SCM: What parallels do you see between characters in this play and the two-faced, duplicitous Soviet officials of the Stalinist period? I’m thinking of the lines in your translation where a priest tries to explain Don Quixote’s delusions to him and is answered by the squire, in part, “I will fight you with your own weapon: language! … People choose different paths. Some tread the trail of vanity, others of servile flattery, yet others go the road of hypocrisy and deceit.” (Interestingly, none of those paths are described in ways we who are choosing our own path would likely use!) Quixote, on the contrary, follows with “No! I take the narrow path of knight-errantry!” Bulgakov saw so little sincerity and openness around him—1937 was not at all a good year to live in Russia—so do you see these lines as his way of contrasting the “noble” fabulist with the dissembling bureaucrat?
POLLARD: Yes. The priest’s criticism and Don Quixote’s reply is one of the linchpins of the play, one of the spots where Bulgakov’s criticism of Stalinist Russia manifests itself most clearly. The duke and the duchess scene is a trap for Quixote. The priest, representing institutional thought and behavior, attacks Quixote’s ideals and imagination, while Samson Carrasco, in the guise of the Knight of the White Moon, would defeat Quixote physically. Both Quixote’s body and mind are under siege. The twin attacks should shut him up and send him back home to become an untroublesome, obedient citizen. But Quixote rhetorically bests the priest by turning his argument against him, thus demonstrating how vital and liberating his ideals and imagination remain, and he wounds Carrasco before succumbing to the younger man’s greater strength. The exercise of physical violence against Quixote should indicate his complete defeat, but the wound Quixote inflicts affects Carrasco deeply, making him understand the significance of the loss of such a creative mind to the village and, thus, the nation.
SCM: The original Cervantes is so very rich and puzzling. Are we to believe Don Quixote’s pronouncements? Does he believe them? And if so, in what sense?
POLLARD: This is a huge question. The simple answer is yes. Whether one considers him insane or playacting, Quixote is serious about his beliefs in chivalric values. In the face of a world marked by colonial expansion, exploitation, a rising money economy, greater social mobility for more people, and the severing of the feudal connection to the land, he sees chivalric values as the return to a stable social environment, a consistent, shared belief system, moral and ethical behavior, and dependable, more humane interactions. The fact that such a unified ideological system depends upon a centuries-old history of driving the foreigner, the Moorish and Jewish populations, out of Spain is lost upon Quixote, although not on Cervantes.
SCM: Don Quixote—after insulting Sancho as a “miserable blockhead and pitiful buffoon” in your translation—promptly disappears from Act 3, Scene 7, in which Sancho has become “governor” of a fictional island. In a few brief scenes that almost read as Biblical parables, Sancho in fact demonstrates a Solomonic wisdom by shrewdly and correctly deciding two court cases, hilariously and implicitly based on his intimate knowledge of how deceitful peasants sometimes think and act—itself a common feature of so many jokes and stories in Russian folktales. Sancho abandons his governorship and returns to his rags and donkey when he sees his little fiefdom attacked by soldiers. What do you feel Bulgakov is saying in these scenes about authority? A footnote of yours mentions what the author “concentrates” on—that is, “morals, ethics, and judgment”? These were loaded ideas, fraught with complexity in Stalin’s pre-war USSR, yes?
POLLARD: In this scene, Sancho functions similarly in both the novel and the play. Instead of being a joke because his aspirations make him look and behave foolishly, his untutored experience and thoughtfulness become the basis for an amazing capacity for accurate, well-balanced judgments, a capacity that throws a conventional notion of authority (class hierarchy in Spain, party hierarchy in Russia) on its head: A peasant can best judge the sagacity (or trickery) of another peasant. For either 17th-century Spain or Soviet Russia, the flattening of that authority hierarchy is too revolutionary and, as a result, cannot exist beyond the momentary fictive space where Sancho has the freedom to explore his newfound capacity for judgment. Such a paradigm shift—where “morals, ethics, and judgment” come from outside conventional authority and the institutions (governmental, religious, political) that support it—would be difficult to imagine or accept, particularly for the powers that be. Thus, Cervantes and Bulgakov shut their experiments down, because their success is too threatening. Sancho escapes with his life to return to his former, humble (humiliated?) self.
SCM: Cervantes has characters burning romance books, with the justification that certain books are “dangerous.” Authoritarian control of media and information in the public sphere has long existed in Russia among a variety of types of government. Talk about how you think Bulgakov—or writers in Russia today—might look at the tradition of citing some information as “dangerous.”
POLLARD: The book-burning scene in the novel is an obvious commentary on the Inquisition and the arbitrary nature of its justice (or injustice). The scene makes the priest and barber, judge and executioner, look like fools, because they exercise no consistent standard by which the books in Don Quixote’s library are condemned or saved, and in the end the majority are burned because they run out of time and energy. The scene seems to parallel Bulgakov’s literary production during his lifetime: highlighted by moments of approval but ultimately swamped by thoughtless, bureaucratic censorship. An enormous amount is lost in that thoughtlessness. The 1933 Austrian film adaptation of Don Quixote by G.W. Pabst ends with Don Quixote witnessing the burning of his books and his consequent death. The tradition of labeling of books/authors as dangerous is a small-minded expedient (ethical, moral, political, religious, aesthetic) that is inevitably destructive, producing a history of loss and lost opportunities rather than a celebration of positive outcomes.
“Bulgakov worked inside the Soviet system to find a place for himself and his art, and the damage done to him by the Soviet ‘windmill’ was aesthetic, economic, and psychological.”
SCM: An original thinker like Bulgakov trying to publish and stage plays in Soviet Russia might be seen as the definition of a word that’s entered our common vocabulary: quixotic. What might Bulgakov—or, for that matter, Cervantes—make of the ever more repressive atmosphere in Russia today, with its constricting pressures on freedom of thought, nonprofit activism, and publishing?
POLLARD: If we were to attempt a history of quixotic Russian artists, a link between Bulgakov and Pussy Riot would be worth thinking about. Bulgakov worked inside the Soviet system to find a place for himself and his art, and the damage done to him by the Soviet “windmill” was aesthetic, economic, and psychological. Pussy Riot’s public performances are quixotic attacks on Putin, the Russian government, and the Orthodox church that have resulted in physical assaults (arrests, jailings, beatings), paralleling what the windmill literally does to Quixote. Just as oppression is an essential piece of human history, so are the attempts to overcome oppression, and so do oppressors inevitably attempt to squelch the quixotic resisters. Who knows whether Bulgakov could appreciate Pussy Riot’s performances, but I think that he would recognize the quixotic nature of their resistance. As for Cervantes, remember that the David and Goliath moment of the windmill scene was meant to make Quixote (the David figure) look foolish. It is history that has repurposed that moment and ennobled Quixote. My guess is that Cervantes would appreciate Bulgakov’s struggle but dismiss Pussy Riot as foolhardy.
SCM: I found the introduction to Part II of Cervantes’ original work extremely witty: Cervantes is mocking other authors who purported to tell the ‘further adventures’ of Don Quixote in ripoff sequels. Intellectual property law, which did not yet exist in the late 16th century, might be said to begin with Cervantes’ claims on his popular character and literary work. Do you see connections between that time and today’s “unauthorized” works, or mashups, or the sharing, piracy, and copyright infringement entanglements that we all face every day—even as consumers, not creators—in the digital age?
POLLARD: Absolutely, the parallels are clear. Without copyright laws, the work of art—the content—was only valued as a means to profit. Artistic integrity—intellectual property—did not matter at all. Thus, Cervantes’ complaint at the beginning of Part II. These days, whether it be books, music, or art, content has become valueless except as a means of profit, something used to sell a piece of software, hardware or an internet service. To understand the parallels, one need only follow the trail of profits, to publishers and print shops in the 17th century or the likes of Amazon, Apple, or Microsoft today.
SCM: Don Quixote is a kind of artist, tormented by those in the world who want to force him not to see things his way. Perhaps Bulgakov could relate to that painful situation?
POLLARD: What’s interesting about Quixote is that he has two audiences. On the one hand, there are those, like the priest and barber, who want him to give up his quest and return home to become a good, responsible citizen, but there are a whole host of others, particularly in Part II, who want Don Quixote to continue on because they are fascinated by what he has done and achieved. When Samson Carrasco defeats Quixote in Barcelona, a local aristocrat chastises Carrasco for “robbing the world of the most diverting folly that ever was exposed among mankind!” and predicts that the attempt to return Quixote to sanity will come to naught. Bulgakov too was caught between his promoters and detractors. For Quixote, though, both his promoters and detractors had deleterious, destructive effects on his mind and body, while Bulgakov, though he faced a very powerful detractor in the Soviet government, had friends and colleagues that allowed him to persevere and ultimately produce his masterpiece, The Master and Margarita.
SCM: And now for something completely different: Among many other topics in your professional work, you read and write often about children’s literature; food and farming; and—a little curiously, to me perhaps—their intersection. What interests or intrigues you there? Do any of the themes or ideas in your explorations of this subject matter tie in with Cervantes?
POLLARD: I wish that I could say that there was some kind of conceptual continuity—a master narrative—for my diverse interests over the years, but there isn’t. I’m omnivorous and eclectic and follow opportunities that intrigue me. Although my formal graduate training was in Latin American literature, my first published article was on David Lynch’s television series, Twin Peaks. My wife, Kara Keeling, is a children’s literature specialist. Over dinner one night we started talking about the presence of food in children’s literature, and we have published regularly on the topic ever since. Because of our interest in food, a colleague in the biology department who had helped create a farmer’s market on our campus asked us to help write a grant that would help fund the market. We did. The grant was successful, and as part of it I became the faculty manager of the market. As I said to the first question, I just happened to be reading El Universal one day, noticed the article on the Cervantes Festival and the production of Bulgakov’s Don Quixote, told my Russian-speaking colleague Margarita Marinova about it, and the project unfolded from there. Margarita is the translator, the Russian speaker, and Bulgakov expert. I brought my knowledge of Cervantes, Don Quixote, and Spanish to the project. I do want to write an article on the presence of food in Cervantes’ Don Quixote, in particular Don Quixote’s use of acorns as a rhetorical device in the Golden Age speech from Volume 1, Chapter 11.
Update: This story was updated July 7, 2017, to correct the name of the filmmaker and the date that the version of the film Don Quixote was released.