The Twelve Chairs
A monument in Odessa
|Author||Ilf and Petrov|
|Original title||Двенадцать стульев|
The Twelve Chairs (Russian: Двенадцать стульев, Dvenadtsat stulyev) is a classic satirical novel by the Odessan Soviet authors Ilf and Petrov, released in 1928. Its main character Ostap Bender reappears in the book's sequel The Little Golden Calf.
In the Soviet Union in 1927, a former member of the nobility, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov, works as a desk clerk. His mother-in-law reveals on her deathbed that her family jewelry had been hidden from the Bolsheviks in one of the twelve chairs from the family’s dining room set. Those chairs, along with all other personal property, had been taken away by the Communists after the Russian Revolution. He becomes a treasure hunter, and after the “smooth operator” and con-man Ostap Bender forces Kisa ("Pussycat", Vorobyaninov’s funny childhood nickname, which Bender prefers) to partner with him, they set off to track down the chairs. This ultimately helps Kisa, who doesn’t possess Bender’s charm and is not as street-smart.
The two "comrades" find the chair set which is put up for auction, but fail to buy it and afterwards find out that the set has been split up and sold individually. They are not alone in their quest. Father Fyodor took advantage of the deathbed confession, and has also set off to recover the fortune. In this search for the treasure, he becomes Vorobyaninov’s main rival. While in this enterprise Ostap is in his element, Vorobyaninov is not as happy, and is steadily abandoning his principles and losing self-esteem.
As they find and cannibalize the chairs one by one, the two finally discover the location of the 12th and last chair that they hope would contain the treasure. To avoid splitting the loot, Vorobyaninov murders Ostap. He then discovers that the jewels have already been found and spent on erecting the very building the chair was found in, and as a result goes insane.
Apart from satirizing its central characters, The Twelve Chairs also does the people and contemporary institutions: the operations of a Moscow newspaper, a student dormitory, a provincial chess club, and so on. The enterpreneurial and individualistically minded Bender is alien to the new Communist order. A sort of modern Till Eulenspiegel, Bender claims to know “four hundred comparatively honest ways of relieving the people of their money” (Russian: "Четыреста сравнительно честных способов отъёма денег у населения"), and he has no future in the post revolutionary Soviet Union. Ilf and Petrov’s observations on aspects of everyday life are shrewd as well as comic.
The first cinema adaptation of the novel was the joint Polish-Czech film Dvanáct křesel (1933). The original plot was considerably altered yet many following adaptations were primarily based on this film rather than on the novel itself (e.g., the former marshal of nobility from the novel was replaced in the Polish-Czech film by a barber who then appeared in several later adaptations).
The book also inspired the 1936 film Keep Your Seats, Please, directed by Monty Banks at Ealing Studios and starring George Formby. The action takes place in Britain and involves seven chairs, not twelve.
In 1957, a Brazilian version called Thirteen Chairs starred comedians Oscarito, Renata Fronzi and Zé Trindade. In this version, the main character, played by Oscarito, inherits his aunt's mansion, which is soon confiscated, leaving him with only 13 chairs. After selling them, he finds out that his aunt had hidden her fortune in the chairs. He then goes on a quest to have the chairs back.
In 1962 Tomas Gutierrez Alea made a Cuban version titled Las Doce Sillas in a tropical context starkly similar to the Soviet one of the novel.
In total, the novel inspired as many as twenty adaptations in Russia and abroad. See The Twelve Chairs (film) for more details on adaptations.
In Vladimir Nabokov's novel, Pale Fire, page 155, a character refers to Ilf and Petrov as "those joint authors of genius" among "such marvelous Russian humorists as Gogol, Dostoevski ...." The clever reference to the decidedly un-humourous Dostoevski is a bow to Ilf and Petrov's satire.
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