The Golden Calf

BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

Rereading THE GOLDEN CALF by Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov was like running into an old girl friend and falling in love all over again.

I first heard about the book, a comic novel about a Russian con man named Ostap Bender and his raffish band of disciples, back in the 1950s when I was living in Greenwich Village near a small used bookstore owned by a man named Bernard Guerdon. It turned out that Bernard had translated one of the first English-language versions of THE GOLDEN CALF. I bought a copy from him and, on first reading, understood immediately why he had recommended it so fulsomely. The book's humor and irreverence touched me in a deeply pleasing way.

I used to read the book every couple of years, until I left New York and lost my copy while in transit. Now Open Letter, the book division of the University of Rochester, has published a brand-new translation (by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson) of THE GOLDEN CALF. Based on the uncensored 1931 original, it restores sections that weren't included in the first version I read, including a witty introduction by the authors in which they defend their right to satirize the early, wide-open days of the Soviet Union.

Basically, THE GOLDEN CALF is an attack on the collectivist, authoritarian mentality of the communist state. Ostap is a roguish individualist who finds the building of socialism boring. His goal is to escape to Rio de Janeiro and lie on a beach for the rest of his life, sipping tall drinks and dancing the samba with near-naked women. To do it, he must find an infamous millionaire named Alexander Koreiko and bilk him out of every ruble he owns. Aiding him in this crusade are a cross-section of equally greedy, disaffected hustlers and petty criminals.

The picaresque adventures of Bender & Co. are hilariously portrayed by Ilf & Petrov, whose earlier novel, The Twelve Chairs, was made into a mediocre movie by Mel Brooks. The authors also collaborated on Little Golden America, which deals with their comic misadventures in the USA. Unfortunately, Ilf contracted TB during the trip and died soon after. I used to own a copy of that book, but lost it as well. Perhaps Open Letter will fill that aching hole in my life. (