Translation of a Soviet Touchstone

'The Golden Calf' by By Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov (Open Letter)

“Look both ways before crossing the street.” So goes the common traffic adage and so begins Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov’s 1931 opus, “The Golden Calf.” It’s simple enough to be disregarded as a joke, but its relevance permeates the story. With a perfect mesh of timeless wit and political metaphor, “The Golden Calf” is a comedic classic, the recent translation of which only serves to emphasize its timelessness.

Ilf and Petrov weave the story of the citizen’s crimes of stupidity with anti-Soviet sentiments, and they deftly use their cast of criminals to get away with it. The instant satisfaction of the characters’ crimes and the rapid dissolution of the rewards therein stand as an allegorical base for the Bolsheviks, who took power only six years before “The Golden Calf” was written. Through the use of undesirables and thieves, the authors are free to digress about their dream of capitalism’s return. The introduction of cremation to the USSR during this time allowed people to laugh about death, making it tangible and giving death a strange residue; similarly, capitalist thieves allowed people to laugh about socialism.

“The Golden Calf” alternates points of view among a wide array of people—artists, office clerks, riddlers, poets, madmen, accountants, Catholic priests, authors and photographers—while concentrating its plot on the work of a band of thieves. The story focuses on four of these thieves; they are conspiring to rob and bring to ruin their associate, the malevolent Korieko, who, it just so happens, is a secret millionaire—an “underground Rockefeller.”

The thief Ostap emerges as the unlikely hero, the leader of the new band of thieves and the mastermind behind their agenda. But like all unlikely heroes, he runs into a long bout of bad luck. Ostap inadvertently ruins the rally and is chased down for it; he is poisoned by Koreiko; his partner, Panikovsky accidently reveals his master plan; and his house burns down—all leaving him one step farther from his dream of the a million dollars.

Ilf and Petrov wear their erudition on their sleeves in “The Golden Calf.” The novel is filled with cues from high and low culture—colorful and referential insults, classical literature, and cosmopolitan knowhow. One pretend madman, exercising freedom of speech as his alter ego declares, “Et tu, Brute, sold out the Bolsheviks!” The novel also takes particular interest in allusions to “The Brothers Karamazov,” and at one point Ostap conflates the story of Jason’s Golden Fleece with the titular (and Biblical) Golden Calf.

Yet, the book is essentially a product of the Bolshevik Revolution, and the culture of regimented pomp with which the Soviets came to be associated. In a telegram to his nemesis, Ostap says, “I am commanding parade,” invoking the frequent and spectacular displays of public military prowess in Soviet cities. Just like Ostap, the book demands the reader’s undivided attention. The novel’s content is humorous, but it remains reflective of the Soviet philosophy of living: one long procession of change comprised of marchers doomed to parade around en masse, doing little of any meaning, bereft of any individuality.

“The Golden Calf” succeeds with well-placed humor that’s constantly in dialogue with (and occasionally mocking of) its high intellectual standard. The facetious nature of the hero will have readers laughing out loud more than once: “The angels want to come down to earth now. It’s nice down here: we have municipal services, the planetarium. You can watch the stars and listen to an anti-religious lecture all at once,” Ostap says.

In the translators’ notes, it is mentioned that much of the humor that applied in Russian, does not work in English. Much of the wordplay and ridiculous names have been lost, yet the translators demonstrated incredible skill at bringing the non-idiomatic humor to the surface of the novel at all times.

Some of the novel’s most charming aspects are the truths that are nonchalantly ferreted out. Even in the 1930s, “One needs to point out that there isn’t a young woman in the whole world who doesn’t sense an upcoming declaration of love at least a week in advance.” It’s true. It is also true that criminals are less stingy than the gluttonous rich. The book makes the comparison that those with “large modern day fortunes [that] were amassed through the most dishonest means” are as bad as stingy smokers that refuse to offer their whole pack lest someone takes more than one.

While deconstructing the dynamics of the Soviet foundation, “The Golden Calf,” tacitly advocates the life of capitalism. At one point, Ostap even says of a parcel, “Inside, there’s everything: palms, girls, the Blue Express, the azure ocean, a white ship, a barely used tuxedo, a Japanese butler, your own pool table, platinum teeth, socks with no holes, dinners cooked with real butter, but most importantly, my little friends, the power and fame that come with money.” Their scheme is the key to something that sounds uncannily similar to the American Dream.

“Parallel to the big world inhabited by big people and big things, there’s a small world with small people and small things.” Ilf and Petrov may have diminished along with the history of the Soviet Union, but this new translation ensures that though they may be apart of a small world, they won’t be forgotten.

—Staff writer Brianne Corcoran can be reached at corcoran@fas.harvard.edu.

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