The Golden Calf is the sequel to Ilf’s and Petrov’s hilariously brilliant first novel, The Twelve Chairs. Ostap Bender, one of the greatest con artists to appear in print, is back from the first novel only slightly worse for the wear. He is as outrageously non-comformist as before and, somehow, Ilf and Petrov find even more ways to skewer not only Soviet society, but civilization and humankind generally. It can only be due to their wild success that Ilf and Petrov managed to stay alive and published at a time and in a place where doing so was not so easy. If their writing was too entertaining for Stalin to kill them, well, need I say more?
In Ostap’s first literary vehicle, the MacGuffin was a set of jewels sewn into one of those eponymous chairs. Here, Ostap sets his sights on the wealth of a secret millionaire: Alexander Koreiko. Being a millionaire in the Soviet Union of the 1930s is a risky business made all the more so when con artist extraordinaire Ostap Bender has caught wind of your stash and wishes to use it to live a life of luxury in South America. The lure of the easy life will take Ostap and his reluctant and ragtag gang on amusing adventures across the Soviet Union. But before that, we must be reintroduced to Ostap and his genius. First, though, a little about pedestrians and automobiles.
[J]ust when everything was ready, when our native planet had become relatively comfortable, the motorists appeared.
It should be noted that the automobile was also invented by pedestrians. But, somehow, motorists quickly forgot about this. They started running over the mild-mannered and intelligent pedestrians. The streets – laid out by pedestrians – were taken over by the motorists….
In a big city, pedestrians live like martyrs. They’ve been forced into a kind of traffic ghetto. They are only allowed to cross the streets at the intersections, that is, exactly where the traffic is heaviest – where the thread by which a pedestrian’s life hangs is most easily snapped.
Cars, specifically one christened “The Antelope”, play a central role in this riotous romp. But our good friend Ostap is still a mere pedestrian when he walks into this novel and onto the streets of a small Russian town. He saunters into city hall to meet with the city council chairman. His purpose is to extract money and, perhaps, a few privileges from a predictably naive small town bureaucrat. He does this by impersonating Nikolay Schmidt, the son of the famous hero Lieutenant Schmidt, first name of whom neither he nor the chairman can remember. The setup is reminiscent of Gogol’s 1936 play The Government Inspector which was, apparently, inspired by an anecdote told to Gogol by Alexsandr Pushkin who was himself, three years prior to the publication of the play, mistaken by locals as a government inspector. Ilf’s and Petrov’s treatment comes with an original twist which sets in motion the alliance that powers the rest of the story.
To wit, Ostap’s plan is going mildly well, having produced so far “only eight rubles and three meal vouchers to the Former Friend of the Stomach cooperative dinner”, when a similarly enterprising stranger walks in claiming also to be the son of Lieutenant Schmidt.
This is a very delicate situation for the two con artists. At any moment, the long and nasty sword of retribution could glisten in the hands of the unassuming and gullible chairman of the city council. Fate allowed themselves just one short second to devise a strategy to save themselves. Terror flashed in the eyes of Lieutenant Schmidt’s second son.
His imposing figure – clad in a Paraguayan summer shirt, sailor’s bell bottoms, and light-blue canvas shoes – which was sharp and angular just a moment earlier, started to come apart, lost its formidable edges, and no longer commanded any respect at all. An unpleasant smile appeared on the chairman’s face.
Ostap, ever calm in the most tense of situations, saves them both by pretending they are brothers, two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt reunited by chance in the chairman’s office.
The happy encounter was marked by chaotic expressions of endearment and incredibly powerful hugs – hugs so powerful that the face of the second son of the Black Sea revolutionary was pale from pain. Out of sheer joy, his brother Nick had thrashed him badly.
After the two sons of Lieutenant Schmidt make it out of the city council chairman’s office, they see a third man heading inside. The second, thrashed son, whose real name is Shura Balaganov, recognizes the man as his friend, Panikovsky. Panikovsky’s trade is also to go about impersonating Lieutenant Schmidt’s son. Ostap is going to stop him from a sure beating, or worse, but Balaganov stops him, explaining:
”[N]ext time, he’ll know better than to break the pact.”
Ostap Bender, with his superior con man skills, will of course discover the secrets of the pact, an agreement among the many impersonators of Lieutenant Schmidt’s offspring and the offspring of various other heros. And Ostap will turn this knowledge of the pact, as he seems to turn everything, to his pecuniary benefit. He wants it known, however, that the Lieutenant Schmidt scheme was not a career for him, as it apparently is for Balaganov and similarly pitiable members of the pact. Rather, for Ostap, the swindle is merely a morning’s amusement:
”What happened this morning was not even a phase, it was nothing, a pure accident, an artist’s whim. A gentleman in search of pocket money. It’s not in my nature to fish for such a miserable rate of return. And what kind of trade is that, for God’s sake! Son of Lieutenant Schmidt! Well, maybe another year, maybe two, and they’ll simply start beating you up.”
“So what am I supposed to do?” asked Balganov, alarmed. “How am I supposed to win my daily bread?”
“You have to think,” said Ostap sternly. “I, for one, live off ideas. I don’t beg for a lousy ruble from the city hall. My horizons are broader. I see that you love money selflessly. Tell me, what amount appeals to you?”
“Five thousand,” answered Balaganov quickly.
“In that case, I have nothing to talk about. I need five hundred thousand. A lump sum preferably, not in installments.”
The five hundred thousand is to get away from Russia, to the good life in Rio de Janeiro. Rio, as Ostap understands it, is populated by “[a] million and a half people, all of them wearing white pants, without exception.” He wants to make it there because, as he says, he has “developed very serious differences with the Soviet regime.”
”The regime wants to build socialism, and I don’t. I find it boring.”
Ilf and Petrov manage to make the Soviet regime anything but boring. They tread what must have been a thin line, but do so with bravura:
”I used to pay a cop standing on the corner of Kreshchatik and Proreznaya five rubles a month, and nobody bothered me. The cop even made sure I was safe. he was a good man! His name was Semen Vasilyevich Nebaba. I ran into him recently – he’s a music critic nowadays. And now? Can you really mess with the police these days? I’ve never seen nastier guys. They’re so principled, such idealists.”
Presumably, one can only get away with such sarcasm in a country where it was, more or less, legally required that you say such things about law officers, “principled…idealists”, in earnest. Ilf and Petrov take full advantage of facts, like the absence of crooked cops in the Soviet system, to both appease and skewer.
Because I can’t resist:
[Ostap to a young man suffering from nightly “strictly Soviet” dreams:] “The principal cause of your dreams is the very existence of the Soviet regime. But I can’t remove it right now. I’m in a hurry. I’m on a sports tour, you see, and my car needs a few small repairs. Would you mind if I put it in your shed?…”
“So you think there’s hope for me?” [the young man] asked, mincing behind his early morning guest.
“Don’t give it another thought,” replied the captain dismissively. “The moment the Soviet regime is gone, you’ll feel better at once. You’ll see!”
But America, where “people…drink straight from the bottle”, comes in for some ribbing too. For instance, Ostap sells two naïve, Prohibition-era tourists from Chicago a recipe for moonshine.
Ilf and Petrov are comic geniuses. If you want something “serious”, and yet incredibly fun, this is the novel for you. The humor is subtle enough to tickle your frontal cortex, but outrageous enough that you ought not drink milk while reading it. And, of course, there is a Nabokov link. In addition to the blurb Nabokov provided (“…wonderfully gifted writers…first-rate fiction…”), Ostap mentions an “exiled king outfit” which put me immediately in mind of Pale Fire.
I cannot rave about Ostap Bender and his novelistic vehicles enough. Just say “antelope” and I am liable to chuckle.