“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.