4 out of 5: The Golden Calf, a classic Russian novel now available in a new English translation published by Open Letter Books, is an exuberant road trip story, a financial thriller, an examination of the criminal underworld, and a social commentary, all rolled into one package. The story spans the era of Lenin’s New Economic Policy, under which private enterprises coexisted with state entities, to the time of Stalin’s rigid program of collectivization. Set against this backdrop of significant social upheaval, Ostap Bender, facetiously nicknamed the Grand Strategist, devises a plan to swindle an “underground millionaire,” named Koreiko, out of a million rubbles. Bender, along with a colorful band of fellow thieves, tracks Koreiko through multiple cities via camels, trains, and automobiles (and even attempts, unsuccessfully, to board an airplane). In the meantime, Koreiko, who disguises himself as a lowly clerk to avoid detection, hoards his past earnings from dubious deals while “saving himself for capitalism.”
In a brief note from the authors preceding the novel, Ilf and Petrov resolve “to make the novel as funny as possible,” and they have succeeded. Some of the humor is playfully absurd: “It was that time, between five and six in the morning, when … the city is light, clean, and quiet, like a state bank. At moments like this, one feels like crying and wants to believe that yogurt is indeed tastier and healthier than vodka.” Other passages carry more subversive meanings: “The cathedral was enormous. Thorny and sharp, it ripped into the sky like a fish bone. It stuck in your throat.” Throughout, The Golden Calf wears its political and social messages lightly, never forgetting that a good story is more entertaining (and more likely to escape censorship) than a political statement.
Some of The Golden Calf’s masterfully constructed set pieces have little connection to the novel’s primary action, and, when necessary to keep momentum high, Ilf and Petrov have no qualms about glossing over the finer details holding the plot together. While resulting in a somewhat chaotic narrative, this unapologetic disregard for relevance and order contributes to The Golden Calf’s undeniable charm. Wouldn’t you rather read about the escape of one of Bender’s inept colleagues from the clutches of two spell-casting priests than about how Bender managed to collect the necessary details about Koreiko’s past exploits? I certainly would. For a hilarious and utterly unique reading experience, pick up a copy of The Golden Calf. Then, sit back, relax, and enjoy the ride.