I think this may be my first Russian best-seller. It’s certainly the first book that has claimed to be such on the blurb at any rate, which is why I picked up this totally unknown (to me) volume at my local library. I have to admit, I did have my questions at the time, after all, would this turn out to be a Russian ‘Da Vinci Code’ or equivalent of ’50 Shades of Grey’? Undeniable best-sellers, they aren’t books I’d be recommending future bloggers to read for their own literary pleasure…
According to its introduction ’12 Chairs’ is ‘one of the most popular novels ever written in Russian‘. The brain-child of respected author Valentin Kataev, it was written by his younger brother Petrov and their mutual friend Ilya Ilf. The set up is simple. The former nobleman Vorobyaninov is told by his mother in law, on her deathbed, that she hid a fortune in jewellery in their dining-room chairs to avoid confiscation. Now he, a travelling companion and their rival, a priest, are racing across Russia to get their hands on the fortune
I hope I’m not giving anything away when I say that an ex-nobel and a priest are hardly going to be heroes in 1928 Russian literature. Much of the humour of the novel is of the ‘the harder they’re beaten, the funnier it is’ school of jokes and comic expectations should be adjusted accordingly. In fact, anyone out for themselves is fair game and as all of the characters want something (money, food, companionship, fame…) very few escape without physical or emotional bruises.
This is a book to recommend to those who think that Russian literature is all about existential loners whining about the world. On the other hand, at 500 pages (excluding notes) it’s not going to convince anyone that Russian writers are able to cut to the chase. I’m afraid it didn’t really work for me personally. It was one of those situations where you can see how something is supposed to be funny, but you know you’re not laughing yourself. On the other hand, it has been made into several films (about twenty, according to Wikipedia), including one by Mel Brooks, so there’s still time for me to join the fans.