Twelve Chairs (Ilya Ilf, Yevgeni Petrov)

Twelve Chairs is a novel by Ilya Ilf and Yevgeni Petrov. I read the German translation by Elsa Brod and Mary von Pruss-Glowatzky.
Finished on: 22.11.2019

It is 1927 and Ippolit works as a town magistrate in the Soviet Union. When his mother-in-law dies, she reveals that she has hidden her fortune in one of the twelve matching chairs in the dining room. The problem is that those chairs were appropriated when the communists took over. Ippolit decides to track down the chairs, but he is not exactly born for this kind of endeavor. Con-man Ostap Bender, on the other hand, is and when he finds out about Ippolit’s search, he invites himself along for it.

Twelve Chairs lives mostly off Ostap Bender who is simply a fantastic character. Other than that, though, the book wasn’t so much my cup of tea and I often failed to see the sense of humor in it.

The book cover showing 12 chairs in a row.

Twelve Chairs is a classic of Russian literature and I understand where that’s coming from. It sizes up the beginning of the Soviet Union and the New Economic Policy and the way those affected the lives of people. It does so with a lot of humor, even if that humor didn’t always work for me. It is possible that this is a problem of the translation more so than anything else – it is a rather old, dusty translation and I found out later that I read an abbreviated version to boot (there are, apparently, several versions circling around).

What is definitely not a question of the translation though is that I have to say that I found all those greedy, grubby small-minded people that Ilf and Petrov conjure up in their novel rather sad and depressing and not so much funny. Above all Ippolit was an enervating character with few to no redeeming features whatsoever.

But Ostap Bender is a charming, charismatic and utterly enchanting character. Morally not better than anybody else, but he really is the salesperson that the book makes him out to be and thus sells himself to the readers, no problem. And he is actually funny. In him, all the best parts of the novel come together. I am not surprised that he makes an appearance in later novels as well.

If they ever make a new translation of the full novel (or if my Russian ever gets good enough to read a novel), I can see myself giving this book another shot. But overall I didn’t think that it was much more than okay (except Ostap).

Summarizing: worth it for Ostap, but not much else.

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