The Golden Calf Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov (trans. Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson). Open Letter. 336 pp, $15.95.
Panikovsky, one of the four Soviet hucksters in The Golden Calf trying to become a millionaire in Stalin’s Russia, is the Harpo Marx of Soviet literature. Instead of running around blowing a horn in people’s faces, when the going gets tough Panikovksy grabs a squawking goose and runs. Russian farmwives, even whole villages, chase after him. Slapstick in Russian fiction, that land ruled by Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, and Turgenev? Believe it. The Golden Calf will have you laughing till tears roll down your face. Craziest of all, the author team of Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov set this novel in Stalin’s Russia, a distinctly not-so-funny setting. Their humor eviscerates communism and makes one wonder why we spend so much money on economic, health, and military policy experts when a few well-placed satirists could surely point out what needs fixing. Most amazingly, Stalin didn’t silence these funny men. Perhaps he was looking the other way. Or perhaps he underestimated the power of humor.
Ilf and Petrov wrote The Golden Calf between 1929 and 1931 serializing it in a popular Soviet magazine. Though there have been two previous English translations of this novel, one from 1932 and one from 1962, in this most recent edition translators Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson have restored whole passages from the standard Soviet text, previously omitted for unknown reasons. Also included is an alternate, much weaker ending, which appeared in the magazine serialization. (It makes an interesting lesson in how not to turn a comedy into a love story.)
Besides managing the most difficult task of translating the Russian humor for an English audience, Gurevich and Anderson also provide brief but helpful chapter notes that include such tidbits as the fact that The Park of Culture and Rest in Moscow mentioned in Chapter 27 later became known as Gorky Park, or the difference between a Category One Purge (“the victim became an unemployable pariah”) and a Category Two Purge (“the victim was dismissed from a Soviet organization or institution and suffered only mild retribution”). The translators mention in their Forward that Ilf and Petrov’s character names were sometimes regular Russian names, sometime puns, and sometimes “hilarious word games,” but admit that most of these names would have been too “unwieldy and artificial” to render in translation. Knowing just enough Russian to be dangerous, I realized that Panikovsky’s name may indeed be related to the Russian word for panic, which makes his goose-stealing character flaw that much more humorous. We can only hope that in the next English edition the translators will include a rendering of the name-play in their appendix for those of us who want to be let in on the complete humor of it all.
What if your country was in a midst of a purge of all private wealth, yet all you longed to do was to get your hands on a million rubles and run off to Rio de Janeiro? Well, if you were affable and clever Ostap Bender, the hero of The Golden Calf, you would scheme your way into a fortune. Luckily for Ostap, during his attempt to get a handful of rubles out of a small-town Soviet official by claiming to be the son of Lieutenant Schmidt (a hero of the Revolution), he meets Balaganov, another son-of-Lieutenant-Schmidt-con-man who, during his last stint in jail, heard of a secret millionaire living in Chernomorsk (a fictional representation of the city of Odessa). Now all they need is a set of wheels to take them across the Soviet countryside. Enter mechanical wizard Adam Kozlevich and his green beater of a car, which has the distinction of being the only taxi in the small village of Arbatov. Other than taking people out for evening rides to get drunk and cause mayhem in the countryside, Adam hasn’t been getting much business and is ripe for Bender’s picking. As this threesome heads out of town, they pick up Panikovsky, make him drop his goose, then christen their car The Antelope and set off to wheedle a million rubles from the man they believe is the last millionaire in Soviet Russia. This book only gets funnier.
As it turns out Alexander Ivanovich Koreiko, their mark, gets up every morning and drags his suitcase full of millions of ill-gotten rubles to a train station locker for safekeeping. Then he heads to work to earn his forty-six rubles a month as clerk in the accounting department of small Soviet organization being housed in the former Hercules Hotel. Koreiko is biding his time till communism runs its course and he can step out into the open and spend, spend, spend.
The owner of ten million was like a boxer who is painstakingly preparing for his triumph. The fighter follows a strict regimen: he doesn’t drink or smoke, he tries to avoid any worries, he practices and goes to bed early—all with the aim of one day jumping into the glittering ring and leaving a jubilant winner. Alexander Ivanovich wanted to be young and fresh on the day when everything came back to normal, when he could emerge from the underground and open his plain-looking suitcase without fear. Koreiko never doubted that the old days would return. He was saving himself for capitalism.
It almost diminishes the intelligence and humor of this book to bring up the banal topic of literary themes, but we can’t avoid it. For a book about communism, there’s much talk about money, specifically what it can and can’t buy. Can money buy love or happiness? Can it make dreams come true? Koreiko understands money’s limits. Ostap Bender, otherwise known in the novel by the nickname The Grand Strategist, learns this lesson the hard way.
Slapstick isn’t the only variety of humor you will find in The Golden Calf. Irony is everywhere. When Ostap sends Balaganov and Panikovsky to trail Koreiko, they end up tackling him in the dark and getting their hands on a tin that falls from his pocket and that contains a neat ten thousand rubles. Bender decides to set up a front operation, and the plot takes a Sting-like turn, though there’s nothing Redford-and-Newman-like about these characters. They call their operation “The Arbatov Bureau for the Collection of Horns and Hoofs, Chernomorsk Branch” and soon, much to their surprise, they become inundated with official missives from the Soviet government summoning representatives to mandatory conferences, as well as deliveries of horns and hoofs for the production of combs and cigarette lighters.
“What the hell is that?” thundered Ostap. “Just three days ago, I was as free as a mountain eagle, I flapped my wings wherever I pleased, and now look at this—attendance is mandatory! Turns out there’s plenty of people in this city who can’t do without Ostap Bender. Plus, who’s going to take care of all this amicable correspondence? We’ll have to incur additional expenses and revise our staffing structure. We need an experienced secretary. Let her deal with this.”
Lo and behold, the dummy operation has taken on more than just a whiff of legitimacy, and Ilf and Petrov don’t miss a single opportunity to poke at Soviet bureaucracies and the inept and corrupt officials who rule them. Talk over the samovar at Koreiko’s office is of the victims of the latest Purge, and one especially funny subplot details the story of one of Koreiko’s fellow clerks, who tries to escape The Purge by faking mental illness. When this poor soul is finally deposited in the mental ward he discovers that all three of his cellmates are also faking mental illness. Even funnier is that they all quote excerpts from psychology texts to support their manias, but it turns out that they’ve immersed themselves in these texts for naught, as they’re declared fakers and thrown out of the hospital. It’s difficult to imagine how this tale could make it through the Soviet censors of the day; perhaps the censors were irony-resistant enough to read such tales as examples of inept officials who were threatening the success of the Five Year Plan. Or perhaps this is a case of serialization working to the authors’ advantage: separated from the rest of the novel, scenes like this likely lose their satiric edge.
Bender does not let his new role as President of a nearly legitimate Soviet bureau get in his way. He begins his investigation of Koreiko and uncovers enough skeletons in his closet to blackmail him. Meanwhile his three comrades become restless. Adam Kozlevich comes under the spell of some local priests who want to use him for his car, and this requires an intervention to break him free. Panikovksy becomes certain that the dumbbells he finds in Koreiko’s apartment are really solid gold in disguise. He convinces Balaganov to steal them and they spend the night sawing the weights in half only to discover they are truly dumbbells. The Horns and Hoofs Bureau thrives, but Bender keeps his eye on his millionaire prize. Just as he can feel Koreiko’s millions in his grasp and the soft, sweet breeze of Rio ruffling his air, Bender’s luck sours and Koreiko escapes.
When the Bureau is shut down pending investigation, it appears that all is lost, but the ever-resourceful Bender has yet another scheme. He poses as one of a cadre of journalists, and much fun is had with a “Celebratory Kit” billed as “An Indispensible Manual for Composing Anniversary Articles and Satirical Pieces for Special Occasions, as well as Official Poems, Odes, and Hymn.” The kit includes a vocabulary section divided into nouns (lackey, worker, banner), adjectives (Imperialist, Capitalist, Industrialist), verbs (propel, slander, screech, threaten), and expressive epithets (vicious and savage), as well as a number of other goodies that give some idea of what Ilf and Petrov likely had to put up with from the Soviet Writers Union. Even now, there’s a thrill of danger to reading this and imagining what these writers were risking by taunting Stalin in this way. After all, it was only a few years later that Shostakovich would fear for his life after premiering an opera that pushed Stalin’s buttons.
The Golden Calf is a wild romp through the Soviet Union and the early years of its first Five Year Plan, so wild that it conjures the Grateful Dead’s immortal words “What a long strange trip it’s been.” But the trip gets stranger. In the November 9, 1935, edition of The New Yorker, we are fortunate to find a brief interview with Ilf and Petrov conducted during their visit to America to write what eventually became the novel Little Golden America: Two Famous Soviet Humorists Survey These United States (another gem of Soviet literature ripe for a new translation). When asked if the second Five Year Plan had anything to say about humor, Petrov replied it hadn’t, adding through his interpreter that, “It is because life is so tragical that we write funny books.” He then mentioned that he and Ilf had visited Mark Twain’s home in Hartford, CT, the previous day, upon which Ilf enters the room and, hearing the mention of Twain’s name, speaks quite vehemently. The interpreter translated his remarks as “Mark Twain had a very tragical life. Dark, gloomy,” while Ilf stood nearby grinning happily. Humor in the face of the tragical. There is something deliciously ironic, and perfect, about this phrase being used to describe both Mark Twain and the writings of Ilf and Petrov, as though they were cousins separated by an ocean and a continent, by economic systems and language, but sharing the bond of humor.
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