From Books > From Fiction > Ilf and Petrov. The Little Golden Calf
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An excerpt from Chapter 13 of Ilf and Petrov's The Little Golden Calf. Translated by Charles Rougle.
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Vasisualy Andreevich's life entered a period of distressful thoughts and moral anguish. There are people who don't know how to suffer—somehow they can't get the hang of it. When they really are suffering, however, they try to get through it as quickly and unobtrusively as possible. Lokhankin, in contrast, suffered openly, majestically; he luxuriated in his grief, sloshing it down by the cupful. His great sorrow afforded him yet another opportunity to ponder the significance of the Russian intelligentsia and the tragedy of Russian liberalism.

"Perhaps this is how it should be," he thought. "Perhaps this is atonement and I shall emerge from it cleansed? Is that not the fate of all those with a delicate constitution who stand above the crowd—Galileo, Milyukov, Anatoly Koni? 1 Yes, yes, Varvara is right—that's how it should be!"

His depression, however, did not prevent him from placing an ad in the newspaper to sublet their second room.

"At least it will help support me for the time being," he decided. And he plunged back into foggy notions of the trials of the flesh and the significance of the soul as the source of the Beautiful.

Not even his neighbors' admonitions to turn out the light in the toilet could distract him from this occupation. In his emotional turmoil Lokhankin constantly forgot to do so, which very much upset his frugal fellow tenants.

Now the tenants of the large communal apartment in which Lokhankin resided had a reputation for being capricious and were notorious throughout the building for their frequent brawls. Apartment 3 had even been dubbed the "Crow Colony." Prolonged cohabitation had hardened these people, and they knew no fear. Blocs of individual tenants maintained a balance of power, but occasionally the inhabitants of the Crow Colony would all gang up on some single lodger, and that lodger was in for a rough ride. The centripetal force of litigation would snatch him up, drag him into the lawyers' offices, swirl him through the smoke-sodden corridors of the law and thrust him into the chambers of the Comradely and Peoples Courts.2 Long would the defiant lodger roam in search of the truth as he struggled to reach All-Union Elder Comrade Kalinin.3 And to his dying day he would sprinkle his speech with legalese he had picked up in various judicial offices, saying "punitive measures" rather than "punishment" and "perpetrate" instead of "commit." He would refer to himself not as "Comrade Zhukov," as he had been known since the day he was born, but "the aggrieved party." Most often and with special relish, however, he would utter the expression "file a suit." And his life, which wasn't exactly flowing with milk and honey before, would really go sour.

Long before the Lokhankin family drama, an aviator by the name of Sevryugov, who had the misfortune to live in Apartment 3 was sent on a mission to the North Pole by the Society for Assistance to the Defense, Aviation and Chemical Construction of the USSR.4 The whole world tensely followed Sevryugov's flight. A foreign expedition had disappeared on its way to the Pole, and Sevryugov was supposed to find it. The world lived on the hope that he would succeed. Radio stations on all continents were talking to each other, meteorologists warned the valiant Sevryugov of magnetic storms, the air waves were filled with the whistles of ham radios, and Kurjer Poranny, a Polish newspaper close to the Foreign Ministry, was already demanding that Poland be expanded to her 1772 borders. For an entire month Sevryugov flew over the icy wastes, and the roar of his engines was heard throughout the world.

Finally Sevryugov did something that utterly confounded the newspaper close to the Polish Foreign Ministry—he found the lost expedition among the ice packs and managed to radio its exact location, but then he suddenly disappeared himself. At this news the globe erupted in cries of excitement. Sevryugov's name was uttered in three hundred languages and dialects, including Blackfoot Indian, and portraits of him dressed in animal skins appeared on every available sheet of paper. Gabriele D'Annunzio proclaimed in an interview with members of the press corps that he had just finished a new novel and would immediately fly out to search for the valiant Russian. A Charleston called "Cozy with my Baby at the Pole" came along, and the old Moscow hacks Usyshkin-Verter, Leonid Trepetovsky, and Boris Ammiakov, who had long been dumping their literary commodities on the market at throwaway prices, were already writing a revue entitled "You're Not Cold?" In a word, the planet was in the throes of a huge sensation.

The news caused an even greater sensation, however, in Apartment 3, 8 Lemon Lane, better known as The Crow Colony. "Our lodger's done for," exulted the retired janitor Nikita Pryakhin as he dried a felt boot over the primus stove. "Gone, the darling boy. So don't fly, don't fly! Man is supposed to walk, not fly. He should walk, walk."

And he turned the felt boot over the moaning flame.

"Mr. hotshot pilot* has flown his last" muttered somebody's grandmother whose name no one knew. She lived on the mezzanine above the kitchen, and although the entire apartment had electric lights, in her room she used a kerosene lamp with a reflector. She didn't trust electricity. "So we have a vacant room. Living space!"

Grandmother was the first to utter the word that had long weighed on the hearts of the Crow Colony. Everyone began talking about the missing aviator's room—former Prince of the Mountaineers, present Toiler of the East 5 Citizen Gigienshivili, and Dunya, who rented a cot in Auntie Pasha's room, and Auntie Pasha herself, a market woman and hopeless drunkard, and Aleksandr Dmitrievich Sukhoveiko, once a gentleman-in-waiting at the court of His Imperial Majesty but now known to all in the apartment as simply Mitrich, and the rest of the small fry led by Managing Tenant Lyutsyia Frantsevna Pferd.

"Well, now," said Mitrich, adjusting his gold-rimmed spectacles when the tenants had filled the kitchen, "Being that a comrade has disappeared, we have to divvy. I, for example, have been entitled to additional space for some time now."

"Why should a man get it?" objected Dunya. "It should go to a woman. There might never in my lifetime be another case that a man suddenly disappears."

And she jostled around among the gathering for a long time, citing arguments in her favor and frequently repeating the word "man."

The tenants were in agreement, at any rate, that the room should be occupied immediately.

That very day the world was rocked by a new sensation. The daring Sevryugov had been found—Nizhny Novgorod, Quebec, and Rekjavik had picked up his signals. He was stuck on the eighty-fourth parallel with a damaged undercarriage. The news set the air waves atremble. "Daring Russian Doing Fine!" "Sevryugov Sends Report to Aviation Society Presidium!" "Charles Lindbergh: Sevryugov Best Pilot in the World," "Seven Icebreakers to Rescue Sevryugov and Lost Expedition." In the intervals between these reports all the newspapers published were photographs of ice ridges and frozen shores. The words "Sevryugov, Nordcap, parallel, Franz-Joseph Land, Spitsbergen, Kings Bay, felt boots, fuel, Sevryugov" were repeated over and over and over.

The despondency that had come over the Crow Colony upon hearing this news soon gave way to calm confidence. The going was slow for the ships as they struggled to smash through the ice fields.

"Take the room, and that's that," said Nikolai Pryakhin. "It's all good and well for him to sit up there on the ice, but Dunya here has every right to it. Especially since the rules say you can't be absent more than two months."

"Shame on you, Citizen Pryakhin," objected Varvara, who at the time was still Lokhankin's wife. "Why, the man's a hero. At this very moment he's on the eighty-fourth parallel!"

"Don't parallel me," Mitrich rejoined vaguely. "Maybe there isn't any such parallel, for all I know. Our kind never had the regular schooling."

Mitrich was speaking the simple truth. He had not attended the classical gymnasium school, but was a graduate of the Page Corps.6

"Look, you!" Varvara fumed, thrusting the newspaper into the gentleman-in-waiting's face. "Here's the article. See? "Surrounded by Hummocks and Icebergs."

"Eisbergs!" Mitrich scoffed. "That we can understand. They've been ruining everything for ten years now—all these Eisbergs, Weisbergs, Eisenbergs, Rabinowitz and what have you. Pryakhin's right—take it, and that's that. Especially since Lyutsiya Frantsevna says it's all right in terms of the law."

"And chuck his things into the stairwell—to hell with them!" boomed the former prince and present toiler of the East Citizen Gigienishvili.

Varvara was soon pecked to pieces and ran off to complain to her husband.

"Well, perhaps that's how it should be," he said, raising his Pharaonic beard. "Perhaps a great truth of the people is speaking through the lips of the simple peasant Mitrich. Just consider the role of the Russian intelligentsia, its significance."

On that great day when the icebreakers finally reached Sevryugov's tent, Citizen Gigienishvili smashed the lock on Sevryugov's door and threw all of the hero's possessions, including the red propeller hanging on the wall, into the hallway. Dunya moved into the room and immediately rented out six cot spaces. An all-night feast was held on the conquered space. Nikita Pryakhin played the accordion and Gentleman-in-Waiting Mitrich did a Russian folk dance with drunken Auntie Pasha.

Had Sevryugov's fame been even slightly less than the worldwide renown he had gained from his remarkable flights over the Arctic, he never would have seen his room again. The centripetal force of litigation would have sucked him in, and to his dying day he would have referred to himself not as the "valiant Sevryugov" or the "hero of the icy wastes," but as "the aggrieved party." This time, however, the Crow Colony really got taken down a peg. His room was returned to him (he soon moved to another building), and gallant Citizen Gigienishvili was sentenced to four months in prison, whence he returned mad as a hornet.

It was he who made the first representations to the bereaved Lokhankin on the necessity of regularly turning off the light after using the toilet, and his eyes were downright diabolical as he did so. The absent-minded Lokhankin did not appreciate the importance of the demarche undertaken by Citizen Gigienishvili and thus failed to take note of the beginning of a conflict that soon led to a horrific event unprecedented in communal apartment life anywhere.

Here's what happened: Vasisualy Andreevich went on as before forgetting to turn off the light in the communal amenities. How indeed was he to remember such mundane trivia when his wife had deserted him and he was left without a kopeck and the full multifaceted significance of the Russian intelligentsia had yet to be precisely elucidated? How could he possibly think that the wretched brownish light from an eight-candle bulb would stir up such strong feelings among his neighbors? At first they warned him several times a day. Then they sent him a letter composed by Mitrich and signed by all the occupants. Finally, they stopped warning him and sending letters. Lokhankin still did not fathom the significance of what was going on, but he vaguely seemed to sense that some sort of ring was about to close around him. On Tuesday evening Auntie Pasha's little girl ran up to him and blurted out in a single breath: "They're telling you for the last time to turn out the light!"

But somehow Vasisualy Andreevich forgot again, leaving the bulb shining there illicitly through the cobwebs and the grime. The apartment heaved a sigh. A minute later Citizen Gigienishvili appeared in the doorway of Lokhankin's room dressed in light blue linen boots and a flat brown lambswool hat.

"Let's go," he said, beckoning Vasisualy with a finger. He grabbed him firmly by the arm and led him down the dark hallway, where for some reason Vasisualy Andreevich began to feel miserable and even dug in his heels a little, and with a shove in the back he thrust him into the middle of the kitchen. Lokhankin kept his balance by clutching at the clotheslines and looked around him in alarm. All of the lodgers were gathered there. Standing there in silence was Managing Tenant Lyutsiya Frantsevna Pferd, her imperious face creased with purple wrinkles. Moping tipsily beside her on the stove sat Auntie Pasha. Barefoot, Nikita Pryakhin sneered at the dismayed Lokhankin. Protruding over the railing of the mezzanine was the head of somebody's grandmother. Dunya was making signs to Mitrich. The former gentleman-in-waiting was smiling and hiding something behind his back.

"What? Are we going to have a general meeting?" Vasisualy Andreevich asked in a thin voice.

"Yes indeed," Nikita said walking up to Lokhankin. "For you, everything—coffee, hot chocolate even!" he suddenly shouted, his breath in Lokhankin's face reeking of something between vodka and turpentine. Lie down!"

"In what sense—lie down?" Vasisualy asked, starting to tremble.

"What's the use of talking to a no-good like him!" said Citizen Gigienishvili. Squatting down, he began fumbling around Lokhankin's waist, undoing his suspenders.

"Help!" Vasisualy said in a whisper, fixing a wild-eyed stare on Lyutsiya Frantseva.

"You should have doused the light!" Citizeness Pferd replied sternly.

"We're not bourgeois—we don't waste electricity," added Gentleman-in-Waiting Mitrich as he dipped something in a pail of water.

"I'm innocent!" Lokhankin squeaked, tearing himself from the grip of the former prince, and present toiler of the East.

"So's everyone else!" muttered Nikita Pryakhin , who kept his hold on the quivering Lokhankin.

"I didn't do anything."

"Neither did anyone else"

"I'm depressed"

"So's everyone else."

"Don't you dare touch me. I'm anemic."

"So's everyone else."

"My wife left me!" Vasisualy wailed.

"So's everyone else's," Nikita answered.

"Let's go, let's go, Nikita!" fussed Gentleman-in-Waiting Mitrich, bringing out a handlful of glistening wet birch switches. With all this talking we'll be here till dawn."

His legs gleaming a milky white, Vasisualy Andreevich was laid face down on the floor. Gigienishvili wound up with all his might, and the switch whistled thinly through the air.

"Mama!" Vasisualy shrieked.

"Everyone else has a mama," Nikita pronounced didactically, pressing Lokhankin down with his knee.

At this point Vasisualy suddenly fell silent.

"Perhaps it's as it should be," he reflected, twitching from the blows and examining Nikita's dark, horny toenails. "Perhaps it is this that is atonement, cleansing, the great sacrifice."

And the whole while he was being whipped and Dunya was laughing bashfully and grandmother was shouting from the mezzanine "Let him have it, the poor dear, let him have it, the little darling," Vasisualy Andreevich intensely contemplated the significance of the Russian intelligentsia and the fact that Galileo also suffered for the truth.

Mitrich was the last to take up the switch.

"Let me give it a whack," he said, raising his arm. "I'll baste those choice parts of his."

Lokhankin, however, was not destined to taste the gentleman-in-waiting's rod. Someone was knocking on the back door. Dunya rushed to open it. (The front door of the Crow Colony had been boarded up long ago, due to the fact that the tenants were simply unable to agree on who should be the first to mop the stairway. The bathroom was locked up tight for the same reason.)

"Vasisualy Andreevich, a strange man is asking for you," said Dunya as if nothing special was going on.

And in fact they all saw a stranger in elegant white pants standing in the doorway. Vasilualy nimbly jumped up, straightened his clothes, and with a gratuitous smile turned to Bender as he entered the room.

"I trust I'm not disturbing you?" the Bigtime Operator asked, screwing up his eyes.

"No, no." Lokhankin babbled, "See, I was just—how should I put it—a little busy... But... apparently... I'm free now?"

He looked inquiringly around him. But there was no one left in the kitchen except Auntie Pasha, who had fallen asleep on the stove during the chastisement. Birch twigs and a white cloth button with two little holes lay scattered across the plank floor.

Translator's notes

(1) Pavel Nikolaevich Milyukov (1859-1953), founder and leader of the Constitutional Democratic Party (Kadets) attacked for his liberal political views by both the right and the left. Anatoly Fyodorovich Koni (1844-1927), prominent liberal jurist. In 1878 he successfully defended the anarchist Vera Zasulich, who had shot and seriously wounded St. Petersburg police chief Fyodor Trepov, for which he earned the wrath of conservatives.

(2) Comradely courts: courts made up of ordinary citizens that dealt mainly with domestic disputes and petty offences. People's Courts: courts of first instance at the city and district levels consisting of a professional judge and two lay assessors and dealing with both civil and criminal proceedings.

(3) Mikhail Ivanovich Kalinin (1875-1946), titular head of state (Chairman of the All-Union Executive Committee) 1919-1946. Playing on his humble peasant origins, propaganda painted "Grandfather" Kalinin, as he was known and addressed, as a kind village elder ready to intercede on behalf of the common people.

(4) Voluntary civil defense organization, 1927-1948.

(5) The Soviet term for the working classes of the Caucasus and Asia.

(6) The Page Corps or Corps des Pages was a special officers' school for the aristocratic elite. Mitrich, like the Georgian "Prince of the Mountaineers," has reason to conceal his noble pedigree.

* The actual word in the Russian text is "the yellow-eyed one" (желтоглазый). Wentzell («Комментарии к комментариям», page. 267) suggests that this refers to pilot's goggles, whose lenses were often made of yellow celluloid.

[Translated for this project by Charles Rougle. Copyright © 2008 Charles Rougle. All rights reserved.]

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