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 Marshal of Nobility, Ippolit Matveyevich "Kisa" Vorobyaninov, works as the registrar of marriages and deaths in a sleepy provincial town. His mother-in-law reveals on her deathbed that her family jewelry was 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, were taken away by the Communists after the Russian Revolution. Vorobyaninov wants to find the treasure. The “smooth operator” and con-man Ostap Bender forces Kisa to become his partner, they set out to find the chairs. Bender's street smarts and charm are invaluable to the reticent Kisa, and Bender comes to dominate the enterprise.
The "conсessioners" find the chairs, which are to be sold at auction in Moscow. They fail to buy them; they learn afterwards that the chairs have been split up for resale individually. Roaming over all of Russia in their quest to recover the chairs, they have a series of comic adventures, including living 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, and traveling on foot through the mountains of Georgia. Father Fyodor, their obsessed rival in the hunt for the treasure, follows a bad lead, runs out of money and loses his sanity. Ostap remains unflappable, and his mastery of human nature eliminates all obstacles, but Vorobyaninov steadily deteriorates.
They slowly acquire each of the chairs, but no treasure is found. Kisa and Ostap finally discover the location of the last chair. Vorobyaninov murders Ostap to keep all the loot for himself, but discovers that the jewels have already been found and used to build the new public recreation center in which the chair was found, a symbol of the new society. Vorobyaninov also loses his sanity.
This paragraph reads like a review rather than an encyclopedic description of the subject. (November 2015)
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.
The novel has inspired 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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