Very little can prepare you for the wild ride that is Mikhail Bulgakov's "The Master and Margarita," especially if you've read other literature or folklore that have the devil as a character. What will be helpful, I suspect, is knowing a bit about the time and setting of the novel. Bulgakov wrote this book between 1930 and 1940 while living in Moscow under Stalin. The book is set in 1920, when everything was being taken under government control, from the distribution of food and beverages to city living quarters. Foreign nationals, literature, currency, and influence were tightly controlled, if not banned, and the secret police had eyes everywhere, locking up citizens on the barest of evidence and shipping them off to labor camps in Siberia. If this weren't bad enough, opportunists played the system for their own selfish benefit, such as reporting one's neighbor to the secret police in order to move into the neighbor's apartment. Religion went from being state-sanctioned to all but banned, and churches were vandalized and looted. All published literature was so scrutinized that only the most coded dissent could get through the censors. Bulgakov went from being an acclaimed playwright to an artist dependent on the unpredictable whims of the regime, having plays produced at theatres, but then shut down shortly after opening.
"The Master and Margarita," is in part a frustrated artist's reaction to all of this, as the devil appears in Moscow and wreaks merry havoc on those people whose mediocrity allowed them to thrive under Stalin, but it is also a great deal more. There are two other narratives entwined with the devil's mischief: a retelling of the Christian crucifixion with Pontius Pilate as the main character, whose story is told by several different narrators, and the story of a writer known simply as The Master and his married lover Margarita. Bulgakov has a great deal of structural fun with these three stories, leaping from one to the other with ease and weaving threads from each story into the others. But ultimately, this book is much more than the stories that comprise it. It's at turns winsome and grotesque, horrifying and hilarious, but at its core a book about hope and intellectual honesty. Though Bulgakov's masterpiece wasn't published until after his death (and Stalin's), the devil's reassurance that no truth can ever be truly lost feels simultaneously prophetic and poignant.
I highly recommend this book for anybody seeking freedom from genre and cliche.