Almost ten years after the Russian Revolution, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobryaninov has put his past as an aristocrat behind him. Unlike most of his class, he as managed to avoid the gulag or execution. He works as a low-level bureaucrat in a provincial town. He doesn’t have much to complain about other than his irritating mother-in-law, who lives with him. Ippolit Mateyevich might have gone on, content, if his mother-in-law hadn’t confessed that she’d hidden her jewels in one of twelve chairs from their pre-Revolutionary house. Ilya Ilf and Yevgeny Petrov’s The Twelve Chairs (translated by John H.C. Richardson) quickly becomes an anarchic tale of a trio of men seeking the chairs, conning everyone in sight as well as each other, and general mayhem.
The star of The Twelve Chairs is not Ippolit Matveyevich. (He thinks rather too much of himself, especially at the beginning of the novel.) Rather, Ostap Bender, a con man, completely steals the show. Vorobryaninov meets Bender early in his quest, while Bender is trying to work out whether he wants to become a career bigamist or art forger. Bender wrangles his way into Ippolit Matveyevich’s mission after convincing the former aristocrat that he needs someone wily to help him get the chairs back. Meanwhile, the mother-in-law also told her priest about the jewels in the chair. The priest’s journey ends up going in a completely different direction, but all three men end up traveling all over the Soviet Union looking for the chairs.
Originally published in Russian in 1927, The Twelve Chairs spends as much time (if not more) lampooning citizens high and low. We are treated to brief sketches of the various owners of the chairs (which were reallocated or sold after 1918) before Vorobryaninov and Bender show up. One of the owners lets his family sponge off funds that were supposed to support female pensioners. Another makes his living selling jokes to magazines. Yet another is a woman who can make herself understood with a vocabulary of about thirty words. Just as soon as we get to know them, Bender and Ippolit Matveyevich swoop in to steal or con the chairs.
The Twelve Chairs is not a story to rush through. Even though the premise of the book has its characters racing after treasure, the authors are leisurely as they set up their sketches. I’m sure there are jokes I missed, either because Ilf and Petrov were mocking people and concepts from Russia in 1927 as they do mocking the general human condition. That said, plenty of the characters and situations are ridiculous enough that I was chuckling through most of the book. But if you try to rush, I think you’ll get impatient with Ilf and Petrov. My advice is to just roll with whatever Ilf, Petrov, and The Twelve Chairs come up with.