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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Golden Calf

Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov

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To purchase The Golden Calf

Title: The Golden Calf
Author: Ilya Ilf and Evgeny Petrov
Genre: Novel
Written: 1931 (Eng. 2009)
Length: 336 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Golden Calf - US
The Golden Calf - UK
The Golden Calf - Canada
Le Veau d'or - France
Das goldene Kalb - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Золотой теленок
  • Translated by Konstantin Gurevich and Helen Anderson
  • Previously translated (as The Litte Golden Calf) by Charles Malamuth (1932) -- with an Introduction by Anatole Lunacharsky ! --, John C.H. Richardson (1962), and Anne O. Fisher (2009)

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Our Assessment:

A- : very enjoyable Soviet romp

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
The LA Times . 24/1/2010 Nicole Rudick
The NY Times Book Rev. . 9/10/1932 William C. White
TLS . 11/10/1932 R.D.Charques

  From the Reviews:
  • "Ilf and Petrov's picaresque is packed with intricacies that resist summary. The authors exploit every character and complication to its fullest humor, in a wild tale driven in large part by Bender's rapid-fire language. (...) Though they sport with the hallmarks of Soviet life, Ilf and Petrov refrain from real political subversion, opting for irony instead." - Nicole Rudick, The Los Angeles Times

  • "It is a satire, continuously hovering on the edge of farce, on the uses of money in Soviet Russia at the present day -- or rather on its uselessnes. (...) It is a very diverting and stimulating piece of fun, a little shapeless in form, but illuminating of many homely and practical aspects of Russian life to-day." - R.D.Charques, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Golden Calf brings back confidence man Ostap Bender from The Twelve Chairs, once again with ambitions for the great haul. He is not your typical Soviet hero -- indeed, the book is full of those critical of and with antipathy to the Soviet experiment. He wants to head for Rio de Janeiro, because:

During the past year I have developed very serious differences with the Soviet regime. The regime wants to build socialism, and I don't. I find it boring.
       As another character who figures prominently -- the man who becomes Bender's mark -- notes, these aren't the worst of times:
He felt at that moment, when the old economic system had vanished and the new system was just beginning to take hold, one could amass great wealth. But he already knew that striving openly to get rich was unthinkable in the land of the Soviets.
       Bender does have a code of honor -- and a healthy respect for the law. He does not steal or rob; indeed, he avoids most things that are outright criminal and insists that those he enlists to help him do the same (though some -- like the goose-thief who joins Bender's 'gang' -- can't help themselves). Instead, this 'grand strategist' has subtler ways of conning people to hand over their money. The Soviet Union of the time -- still very much in transition from Czarist bureaucracy to Soviet one, with the New Economic Policy and five-year-plans installed but not yet very effective (and the true oppression of Stalinism still a ways off) -- still leaves much room for Benderesque maneuvering -- to often hilarious effect.
       It's the small cons (and their tendency to go awry) that are particularly fun: pretending to be the lead car in a rally, hailed at every stop, or setting up a local Bureau for the Collection of Horns and Hoofs ..... But Bender has his eyes set on the prize, which comes in the form of the fortune amassed by one Alexander Ivanovich Koreiko, a con man of extraordinary talents in his own right, living on a meager salary but, in fact, the mastermind behind an organization that commits large-scale fraud with company shell-games that utilize bureaucratic inefficiencies and confusion to take the state and local governments for everything they're willing to give (which turns out to be a lot). Bender researches this shadowy figure, and then, once he knows who his target is, sets his sights on him, willing to exchange the damning dossier he has built up on Koreiko for a tidy million.
       The cat and mouse game is a great deal of fun, with Bender's bumbling small-time associates rarely helping the cause: shortsighted, they're more eager for the small but immediate fortune than the big prize, and so he finds: "you're about as competent at your jobs as a sieve made of dog tails". Koreiko isn't quite Bender's match, but close -- and in the escalating battle of wits everything else is left by the wayside, even the girl (as well as Bender's hapless associates).
       Yet Bender finds success and fortune is less satisfying than he had anticipated. Money proves not to be everything -- or, in fact, in the Soviet Union of the time, much of anything. As he moans:
     "And this is the life of a millionaire ?" he reflected in frustration. "Where's the respect ? Where's the reverence ? The fame ? The power ?"
       The Golden Calf is a surprisingly political novel -- but not in the way one might expect, as it constantly makes fun of or even criticizes the new Marxist state, even going so far as to have a character say:
In Soviet Russia, the only place where a normal person can live is in an insane asylum.
       (Of course, the 'normal' folk who try to escape what's going on by hiding in insane asylums get their comeuppance too: Ilf and Petrov are equal opportunity satirists.)
       Bender is a marvelous comic figure, with his code of ethics and his standards -- yet a willingness to take advantage of all situations (and most people). And Ilf and Petrov are exceptionally fine comic writers. The novel meanders about a bit, but adds up fairly nicely, the one big haul driving the story, the many smaller episodes nicely supporting it.
       Very good fun, and highly recommended.

       (This apparently the first translation of The Golden Calf to include all of the standard Soviet text (although Anne O. Fisher's, which came out at almost exactly the same time, apparently does too). A few explanatory notes are included at the end of the novel, but it's a very limited and almost random grab-bag: more (or none) would have been preferable.)

- M.A.Orthofer, 20 September 2009

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The Golden Calf: Reviews: Ilf and Petrov: Other books by Ilf and Petrov under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Authors:

       Ilya Ilf (actually: Ilya Arnoldovich Fainzilberg (1897-1937)) and Evgeny Petrov (actually: Evgeny Petrovich Kataev (1903-1942)) were a highly successful Soviet writing-duo, specialising in comic works.

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© 2009-2010 the complete review

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