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The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf
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it was amazing
bookshelves: novels

A comic Russian novel? It’s possible. The Golden Calf by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov is described as hilarious and raucous—and I admit, I was skeptical. The book was published in the early 1930s in the Soviet Union, first serialized over several years in a popular magazine. Funny? Maybe. But I doubted that the humor would translate over eight decades to an English-reader in the United States.

But it did. This is a book that can be best described as a caper, featuring Ostap Bender, a larger than life con man who brings together a team of earnest but simple bandits to pull off his biggest haul yet. In search of a secret millionaire—secret because nobody could be publicly rich in this time and place—they find Alexander Koreiko. Koreiko lives as a humble, poor clerk in a corporation, but he has millions stashed away that he made through his own scheme: a business fraud that took advantage of the Soviet Union’s earliest and most chaotic years. Koreiko plans to bide his time until socialism fails, capitalism returns, and he can enjoy his riches in peace. That is, if Ostap Bender and his strategy of principled swindling doesn’t take it from him first.

It’s a fun plot, but what really takes the novel to the next level is the sharp satiric eye that the authors cast on every level of society. Ilf and Petrov are not quite subversive, but they have an edge. Nobody is immune to their withering wordplay—from secret capitalists hiding out in an insane asylum to the mournful man of the intelligentsia who fakes a hunger strike, from the nonsensical bureaucrats to the Chicago men who, during the Prohibition years, are in search for a recipe for moonshine. There is also my favorite side character, the old man who makes puzzles for the newspapers, now struggling to craft riddles that are socialist enough to be published. He’s left to desperately put together number games that, through complex multiplication and division, prove the superiority of the Soviet system over all other systems.

The eclectic cast of characters stands in relief against the novel’s vivid landscape. Take the description of the men in Chernomorsk—the fictional city where the majority of the story takes place, and based on the city of Odessa. It reads:

“Nobody wore a hat. One could occasionally spot a cap, but a mane of wild black hair standing on end was much more common, and a bald sun-tanned pate, glimmering like a melon lying in the field and tempting you to write something on it with an indelible pencil, was more common still.”

The light touch is carried into the significant first meeting between Ostap Bender, and Koreiko. Bender is primed to lure Koreiko into blackmail, and but slowly begins to realize that this secret millionaire has a few tricks of his own. Before speaking, the men can’t stop falsely smiling at each other. It reads:

“This escalation of smiles and emotions was reminiscent of a manuscript by Franz Liszt where a note on the first page said to play fast, on the second page – very fast, on the third—much faster, on the fourth—as fast as possible—still faster. Seeing that Koreiko was already on page five, and that any further competition was simply impossible, Ostap got down to business.”

After this encounter, which of course doesn’t go as planned, Bender is left to a conclusion that pokes fun at reigning Soviet philosophy. He says, “Investigating Koreiko’s case might take a long time. God only knows how long. And since there is no God, nobody knows.”

What works about this novel is that it’s not afraid of toying with the absurd, and at the same time, its got enough intelligence and insight to underscore the hilarity with substance. At times, it is apparent that the novel was initially serialized—the text wanders somewhat, the extraordinary number of secondary characters is a bit dizzying, and at times, the novel seems to lack a complete vision. But it’s written well enough to still be fun to move through.

Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson are the team behind this first complete edition of The Golden Calf to be translated into English. They include an introduction and very sparse notes at the end of the book, as well as an appendix that offers an alternative ending. While I appreciate that the translators didn’t clutter the text with unnecessary and tangential notes, the fact that there were so few of them, and that they were unmarked in the text, had me continually forgetting that they were there. The notes that are there are helpful and interesting to understand this tumultuous time in the Soviet Union; I wish the text had pointed me to them more clearly.

I also would’ve appreciated a translator’s reflection on how the handled all the wordplay in the novel. A lot of the humor of the book hinges on naming and turns of phrase, and I laughed out loud often. But I did wonder how that syntax made the journey from Russian to English.

Overall, though, I’m grateful to Gurvich and Anderson for bringing forth an unusual and absolutely delightful novel, communicating the satire across generations and continents. It is an impressive feat, and a lot of fun.
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Reading Progress

December 17, 2009 – Shelved
December 17, 2009 – Shelved as: novels
Started Reading
February 1, 2010 – Finished Reading

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Paul Richardson Another translation of this came out at the same time, as it turns out. It has just the sort of translator notes and annotations you asked for, Anna, making it a much more "informative" read.

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