“I sewed my jewels into the seat of a chair.”…..
“What? Seventy thousand roubles worth of jewellery hidden in a chair! Heaven knows who may sit in that chair!”
You get used after a while to Russian novels having a tragic and bleak style so when this starts with the reader looking over the shoulder of Ippolit Matveyevich as he trudges from the poverty of his home to the registry office where he is tasked with filling in ledgers all day you expect the usual.
But very quickly the conventions are broken and the deathbed confession from his mother-in-law that she hid the family jewels in a chair in the old house sets him off on a chase across Russia. He is not alone because the dying woman also felt the need to confess to the priest.
So begins a chase for the 12 chairs, with the one that holds the jewels, that takes the priest and Ippolit across Russian and into bizarre situations. The priest will ultimately betray all that his position seems to stand for as he is consumed by greed and end up as a comical figure howling at the moon but for Ippolit the journey is slightly more complex and his destination a more sobering one.
As he heads back to his former home he is bullied by a chancer, Ostap Bender, who managed to bully the older man into a position of not only revealing the quest for the jewels but of agreeing to halve the value of the gems. So the mismatched pair set off conning and conniving their way through the provinces and in to Moscow looking for and finding chair after chair of the original twelve.
There is real humour here but the targets are cleverly selected. A priest who is quick to exploit a death bed confession and sell his robes to fund a treasure hunt is also followed by would be Tsarists who scare themselves to death plotting an overthrow of the communists. These are targets that the censors would have approved of.
But between the cracks you are left asking yourself why would people be prepared to drag themselves across Russia for jewels and that perhaps is where the satire really lies. A clerk and a con man that have both known better times are really on the hunt to recreate those days of the past. Wealth will of course overcome the hurdles not just of poverty but the day to day problems put in your way by a state that limits your living area and is expert at creating an atmosphere of misery. Everyone has a secret, a desire to blossom in a place where to do so brings danger, and throughout the book the characters line-up dreaming of a better future.
What makes this a memorable read is not just the humour and the well plotted treasure hunt. Even as it becomes obvious it will be the final chair they find that will hold the answer you stick with it to see the outcome. This is a novel that paints a picture of not only greed and money lust showing how it can lead to madness and murder but in its own way holds up a mirror to a society in the 1920s that was scared, dreamt of the past and where the ultimate treasure was the almost completely intangible personal freedom.
With the remaining ten chairs consuming both father Theodore, who is sent on a wild goose chase to the edge of Russia, and the pair working together the beginning of the end draw near as each of the chairs is discovered and found to be empty.
This search takes them across Moscow and then finally down to the Crimea. Ippolit and Bender survive being chased out of town by the chess club, an earthquake and other threats.
But the impact of chasing wealth and living like a beggar is that it changes the outlook from Ippolit and he turns from a former member of the landed gentry into a criminal. In the end he is determined to resort to extreme measures to get his hands on the jewels.
But in this tale of the madness of bureaucracy and of the collective against the greed of the individual the fates of Theodore, Ippolit and Bender are all cautions of how naked greed and tear apart the mind and soul. Although there are plenty of little shots at the soviet system and society it is that final message that presumably protected the book and the authors from the traditional Soviet censorship and spells in prison.
A review will follow soon…
By using the figure of Father Theodore as the priest using a death-bed confession about hidden jewels as a chance to become rich there is a gentle contempt. The priest is happy to walk out on his flock and share his secrets of a candle factory and wealth with his wife.
It chimes in with the communist view that the church is an organisation with plenty of hypocrisy and with its fair share of wealth loving staff. But Theodore is perhaps more honest than the others making no secret of his determination to gain wealth and change his circumstances.
Meanwhile the pair are working their way through various chairs and are now at a stage where they have managed to get close to buying all remaining 10 chairs at a state auction. But the relationship between Ippolit and Bender changes when the former blows his money on wine, food and a woman.
From that point on, with the chairs lost at the auction to various buyers, the younger man takes control and Ippolit is losing his grip on the jewels.
If you have any understanding of Russian history then there is delightfulness as the events unfold against a post-revolutionary background. There are still those that support the Tsar and there are many who dream of a different world to the one they face post 1917.
In the middle of that are the two conspirators, Ippolit and Bender, hunting for the chair. The old man who is chasing the vision painted to him by his mother-in-law on her deathbed and the young pretender.
They establish that the chairs have been distributed throughout Moscow and plan to head there to rediscover them. The problem is that to do so involves money and they have to beg and scheme to get the funds. The way they get them is to appeal to a group of those dreaming of a return to Tsarist days.
The jokes are directed at everyone in this book but for those that spend their days dreaming of an anti-communist uprising there is a degree of pity mixed in with the laughs.
Armed with the money they need those hunting the chairs head for Moscow…
Unlike most Russian literature this story start pretty much from the off with the main character and his world introduced with light but penetrating brush strokes. By the time other authors might have got onto explaining the family tree and the situation of the village the main character Ippolit has gone through a day’s work.
As the recorder of births, marriages and deaths in a small village he has a clerks job and a clerks salary and his relationship with his mother-in-law reveals that he was married and widowed and lives in poverty.
In a town where the funeral directors are almost going bust through lack of deaths the moment when his mother-in-law dies is well known across Ippolit’s village. But before she dies she breathes the secret of her hidden jewels and in just a matter of pages a world, a character and now a mission have all become apparent.