Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov
Translated from the Russian
by Konstantin Gurevich
and Helen Anderson
Open Letter: 336 pp., $15.95 paper
From 1928 to 1932, the Soviet Union carried out the first Five Year Plan, initiated the disastrous policy of collectivization and strengthened the gulag. But if there was a bright spot in those years of budding brutality, it may have been the writing team of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov, who in the satirical novels "The Twelve Chairs" (1928) and "The Golden Calf" (1931) took aim at their ideology-infused society.
"The Golden Calf" has never been available in its entirety to English readers. Now, though, an energetic new translation by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson restores the saga of the irrepressible Ostap Bender, a trickster and individualist at odds with the stultifying collective atmosphere. "I have developed very serious differences with the Soviet regime," he explains. "The regime wants to build socialism, and I don't. I find it boring."
Bender's enduring desire is to escape to Rio de Janeiro. But first he must find a "secret millionaire" (it isn't legal to be wealthy in the workers' paradise) and bilk him. Once he learns of Alexander Koreiko, a con man who illicitly accrued his wealth during the chaotic period of the New Economic Policy, Bender gathers a disaffected band of merry pranksters -- the unforgettable Balaganov, Panikovsky and Kozlevich -- and hits the road in hot pursuit.
Ilf and Petrov's picaresque is packed with intricacies that resist summary. The authors exploit every character and complication to its fullest humor, in a wild tale driven in large part by Bender's rapid-fire language.
"Investigating Koreiko's case might take a long time," the character announces. "God only knows how long. And since there is no God, nobody knows. We are in a terrible bind. It might be a month, it might be a year. Either way, we need some legal standing. We need to blend in with the cheery masses of office workers. That's what the bureau is all about. I have long been interested in administration. I am a bureaucrat and a mis-manager at heart. We will be collecting something very funny, for example, teaspoons, dog tags, or bells and whistles. Or horns and hoofs. That's perfect! Horns and hoofs. How about that? Besides, I already have some excellent blank forms that are suitable for any occasion and a round rubber stamp in my bag."
The novel's physical moments fall somewhere between Three Stooges slapstick and Marx Brothers theatrical satire: "Ostap winked at Balaganov, Balaganov winked at Panikovsky, Panikovsky winked at Kozlevich. And even though the honest Kozlevich didn't understand a thing, he too began winking with both of his eyes." There's even a "fifty-kopeck dickey" that rolls up "like a parchment scroll."
Bender is the grand strategist and indefatigable hero. His "minted profile," tanned good looks and gregarious charm make him a Soviet Clark Gable. Restless, romantic, vulnerable and larger-than-life, he also reminds one of the poet Mayakovsky -- a whiff of tragedy surrounds them both.
Though they sport with the hallmarks of Soviet life, Ilf and Petrov refrain from real political subversion, opting for irony instead. They mock the fashion of creating names based on revolutionary heroes and concepts. History produced Revolutsiya, Elektrifikatsiya, Vladlen and Traktorina; Ilf and Petrov created Smarmeladov, Platonikov-Pervertov, Medusa-Gorgonev and Hygeinishvili. They likewise highlight the Soviet proclivity for sloganeering and overblown names and bureaucracies (the Dialectical Easelists, the Chernomorsk Branch of the Arbatov Bureau for the Collection of Hoofs and Horns).
Even hints of state violence are met with irreverence. When four men fake psychiatric disorders and enter an institution to avoid "an involuntary trip way up north," one of them shouts: "I'd rather live here, among common lunatics. At least they aren't building socialism."
Later, after being kicked out of the institution for such fraudulent behavior, another of the men reports his adventure to curious co-workers, two of whom are named Dreyfus and Sakharov. (This is strangely prescient, since the future dissident physicist was only 10 at the time of the novel's publication.) "In Soviet Russia," he declares, "the only place where a normal person can live is in an insane asylum."
Farce is at the novel's heart, but Ilf and Petrov's humor occasionally displays an edge. At one point, a German journalist recasts the tale of Adam and Eve as a Marxist parable, the moral of which is that "one son was named Cain, the other Abel, and that in due course Cain would kill Abel, Abraham would beget Isaac, Isaac would beget Jacob, and the whole story would start anew, and neither Marxism nor anything else will ever be able to change that." Bender responds by recalling the Wandering Jew who enters Russia in 1919 and is shot by a Ukrainian firing squad. "And the eternal wanderer," Bender concludes, "was no more."
Despite their willingness to poke fun at Soviet society, Ilf and Petrov were true believers, and Bender's fate carries an ideological point. His egoism and individualism, characteristics of the old order, are relics in a new age of communality and industriousness.
Still, Bender is a charming and sympathetic character, which may speak to the success of the book. In its day, reportedly, "The Golden Calf" sold 120,000 copies in the Soviet Union. The state banned the book in 1948, only to rescind the ban in 1956, the year of Khrushchev's "secret speech." Evidence, perhaps, that even a sunny disposition can be a dangerous thing.
Rudick is a New York-based writer.