FICTION: Soviet Caesars and State Raincoats
The Golden Calf
Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov
(OPEN LETTER, 2009)
On the heels of the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall comes a new translation of one of the most beloved and quotable Russian classics—The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov. This is the first version based on the complete and uncensored original, which was first serialized in 1931, and, unlike the two very truncated incarnations that came before, finally illuminates in full comedic and insightful glory the work of the writing duo from Odessa (pen names for Ilya Faynzilberg and Evgeny Kataev), whose iconic status in Russian literature is akin to that of Fitzgerald and Hemingway in the U.S.
The hero of this picaresque road trip novel is Ostap Bender, a stylish, erudite con man with a big heart and a sharp tongue, whose single desire is to escape the country and stroll down the avenues of Rio de Janeiro in white pants, a dream more far-fetched in the late ’20s Soviet Russia (or anytime Soviet Russia) than becoming the first man in space. The hunt is on after Bender learns of an underground millionaire, Alexander Koreiko, who, having amassed a sizeable nest egg in various exploitation schemes, lives like a pauper on his lowly clerk’s salary as he awaits capitalism. Koreiko is in an oddly vulnerable situation: because during the Soviet years there simply was no legal way to earn millions, his mere possession of them would be grounds for immediate arrest. He is the perfect target for blackmail. We follow Bender and his band of petty fraudsters as they chase the defiant, tight-fisted Koreiko across the Soviet Union and get into all sorts of absurdly hilarious and hilariously absurd troubles along the way.
The Golden Calf is generally considered a sequel to The Twelve Chairs (1928), in which Ostap Bender races against other “entrepreneurs” in tracking down the twelve chairs; inside them, rumor has it, a deposed noblewoman has hidden her family jewels to save them from the Bolshevik repossession. The novels, however, are not sequential and only share the main hero, Bender. Ilf and Petrov’s prose is rife with spot-on characterizations of people from all walks of Soviet life (“The third one was a fellow Russian, judging by the overpowering smell of galoshes coming from his state Rubber Trust raincoat.”), snappy dialogue (“Investigating Koreiko’s case might take a long time…God only knows how long. And since there is no God, nobody knows.”), witty one-liners, and political and cultural references. There is something to belly-laugh at on every other page.
Not-so-hilarious aspects of Soviet society are handled with a light but knowing touch. For example, one of Koreiko’s clerk colleagues is so afraid of an upcoming purge of political unreliables that he decides to pretend to be mad so he can sit out the dangerous period in the madhouse. There, he finds himself in the company of several other perfectly sane anti-socialists in hiding. A poignant remark comes from one comrade impersonating Julius Caesar as part of his mania shtick: “In Soviet Russia, the only place where a normal person can live is an insane asylum… Finally, I have my personal freedom here. Freedom of conscience, freedom of speech.” Another Roman political figure, Pontius Pilate, would become a central character in a later Russian classic of the 20th century, Master and Margarita by Mikhail Bulgakov (finished in the early ’40s and published in various censored forms from ’66 on), whose satirical style is highly reminiscent of Ilf and Petrov’s.
The chapters of The Golden Calf often open with funny vignettes lampooning the absurdities of life under socialism: the struggle of a puzzlemaker to come up with properly socially-conscious brain teasers; the peasants’ drunken countryside rides that always end in naked moonlight dancing; the domestic feuds at the “Rookery,” an especially violent and litigation-prone communal apartment. Before their relevance to our heroes’ mission is revealed, they read as masterpieces of comedy sketches in their own right. With all the hilarity, however, the novel is full of heartbreaking, universal insights.
Aside from a few minor missteps of nuance, the translators Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson capture with excellence the raucous, hot-tempered tone of the prose. This edition also contains a note from the authors, translator’s notes, as well as an appendix with the original—albeit less effective—final chapter.
KSENIYA MELNIK is a writer and a student in the graduate writing program at NYU.