The Twelve Chairs
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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 marriages and deaths registrator in a sleepy provincial town. 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. Vorobyaninov becomes a treasure hunter, and after the “smooth operator” and con-man Ostap Bender forces Kisa ("Pussycat", Vorobyaninov’s childhood nickname, which Bender prefers) to partner with him, they set off to track down the chairs. Bender's street smarts and charm soon turn out to be invabluable to the reticent Kisa, and he soon comes to dominate the enterprise.
The "conсessioners" find the chair set which is put up for auction in Moscow, but fail to buy it and afterwards find out that the set has been split up and sold individually. They go on to track down the chairs all over the 1927 Russia, with numerous escapades along the way: surviving in a students dormitory with plywood walls, posing as bill painters on a riverboat to earn passage, bamboozling a village chess club with promises of an international tournament, traipsing in the mountains of Georgia and so on. Their early rival in the hunt for the treasure, the obsessed Father Fyodor, soon goes off on a wrong track, spends all his money and finally loses his mind. Ostap shows himself unflappable and an expert on human nature throughout, while Vorobyaninov, clinging to the tatters of his "entitlement," steadily deteriorates.
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 - a vast recreation center, open to the public for free, a symbol of the new society. Losing all his hopes of possession, Vorobyaninov goes insane.
The novel, though short, resonates with all the important events of the time. Numerous side characters, places and institutions are caught in a sharp light, sometimes of satire, sometimes of gentle irony: the operations of a Moscow newspaper, the 3% government bonds, New Economic Policy decadence and so on. The two main characters, among other things, are social types: the declassé Bender is an individualist foreign to both the old, discredited hierarchy of birthright, epitomized by Vorobyaninov, and the new Communist order. A sort of Reynard the Fox specific to the time and setting, Bender claims to know “four hundred comparatively honest ways of relieving the people of their money,” and he has no future in the Soviet Union.
In total, the novel inspired as many as twenty adaptations in Russia and abroad. 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).
In Nazi Germany Dreizehn Stühle (Thirteen Chairs) was based on this novel in 1938. However, the film did not credit the novel's authors (probably due to Ilf's Jewish origins).
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 Tomás Gutiérrez Alea made a Cuban version titled Las Doce Sillas with Reynaldo Miravalles as Ostap. Set in a tropical context, it is starkly similar to the Soviet one of the novel. A notable difference is that in the Cuban version the hero "sees the light", becomes corrected and joins Cuban revolutionary youth in zafra campaign (sugar cane harvesting).
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