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Literature / The Twelve Chairs

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The first part of a satirical duology by Ilia Ilf and Eugeny Petrov.

In post-civil war Soviet Russia, a former member of nobility, Ippolit Matveyevich Vorobyaninov, works as a desk clerk, until his mother-in-law reveals on her deathbed that her family jewelry had been hidden from the Bolsheviks in one of the twelve chairs from the family's dining room set. Those chairs, along with all other personal property, had been expropriated by the government during the Civil War. He becomes a treasure hunter, and after the smooth operator and Con Man Ostap Bender forces Kisa ("Kitty", Vorobyaninov's funny childhood nickname, which Bender prefers to long "Ippolit") to partner with him, they set off to track down the chairs. This ultimately helps Kisa, who doesn't possess Bender's charm and is not as street-smart.

The two "comrades" nearly get the prize at the auction, but because Kisa screwed up and squandered all their cash, the chairs are split up and sold individually. They are not alone in this quest, either: Father Fyodor Vostrikov took advantage of the deathbed confession, and has also set off to recover the fortune. In this search for Mme Petukhova's treasure, he becomes Vorobyaninov's main rival. While in this enterprise Ostap is in his element, Vorobyaninov is not so happy. He's steadily abandoning his principles and losing self-esteem.

The Odd Couple travels across the USSR in search of the MacGuffin, going through a number of Adventure Towns, giving the author a chance to satirize a wide section of the USSR populace.

One of the best and most enduring Russian literature works from the Soviet era, and an inexhaustible source of great quotes along with its sequel, The Little Golden Calf.

Mel Brooks directed a well-liked adaptation in 1970, with a wonderfully hammy Ron Moody as Vorobyaninov, with Dom De Luise as Father Fyodor, Frank Langella as Ostap Bender, and Brooks himself as Tikon.

Two other Russian adaptations have created a bit of a Broken Base amongst the Russian viewers. The main point of contention is whether Andrei Mironov's interpretation of Bender as less of a Lovable Rogue and more of a Villain Protagonist works.

The book was also loosely adapted into Keep Your Seats, Please!, a 1936 comedy from Ealing Studios.

This book and film feature examples of:

  • Adaptational Badass: By omission. The movie adaptations tend to leave out Bender's more humiliating moments, such as when he gets royally plastered and misses the chance to catch their prize (which is the only time he gets called out by Kisa and doesn't have a retort) or when he gets beaten up by some Caucasians (from the Caucasus Mountains) when he got caught cheating in cards.
  • Advertised Extra: Mel Brooks always appears on the front cover of the version he directed, since it also marked his first onscreen movie role. Sometimes the synopsis on the back cover makes his role sound as important as that of Bender and Father Fyodor, when in actuality Brooks only makes one or two appearances.
    • In the 1971 Soviet adaptation the same role was played by Yuriy Nikulin, arguably, the biggest star in the cast. He is also often credited on the front cover right after the actors playing Bender and Vorobyaninov.
  • Ambiguously Jewish: There are some reasons to believe Bender is of Jewish descent. Also, his Odessa roots (a very Jewish city) and his claim of being the son of one Turkish subject (Jews often used foreign passports, especially readily available Turkish papers, as foreign nationality would change their ethnicity to Turk in legal documents to avoid being forced to fight in the Civil War).
    • Bonus points for calling his father Turkish subject instead of simply a Turk.
  • Ascended Extra: Bender himself was intended as a one-scene character, but became a One-Scene Wonder for the authors and had immediately stolen the spotlight.
  • Atomic F-Bomb: In the Mel Brooks movie, after yet another chair turns out to contain nothing of value.
    Bender: Remember the famous Russian proverb: "The hungrier you get, the tastier the meal." On the other hand, the French have a proverb: MERDE!
  • Bleak Abyss Retirement Home: One of the places Bender searches.
  • Brainless Beauty: Ellochka. Her vocabulary is thirty words large.
  • Brick Joke: Kisa's first appearance in the Mel Brooks film has him rushing home from his workplace, still holding a rubber stamp that he was presumably using when he heard the news that Mme Petukhova was dying. He's still holding the stamp during the entire conversation where he learns about the jewels. And he's still holding the stamp when he kisses his mother-in-law goodbye, resulting in the word CANCELLED being stamped on her face.
  • Butt-Monkey: Kisa Vorobyaninov goes from one humiliation to another. Also Father Fyodor to some extent.
  • Catchphrase: Bender's The hearing is continued! ("Заседание продолжается!")
    • Also, The ice has broken! ("Лед тронулся!")
    • And several mentions about obtaining "the key to the apartment where the money is" ("ключ от квартиры, где деньги лежат") Ostap has several "Benderisms" which have since entered the Russian colloquial lexicon.
  • The Charmer: Bender again.
  • The Chessmaster: Bender refers to himself as "The Great Combinator". The narration agrees.
  • Con Man: Bender.
  • Convulsive Seizures: in the Mel Brooks movie, Bender teaches Kisa to do this as a way of conning charity out of passers-by. It wasn't in the book.
  • Corrupt Church: Father Fyodor. The catholic monks in the sequel also qualify, according to Bender.
  • Deadpan Snarker: Bender.
  • Description Porn: Mme Petukhova describes her jewelry in considerable detail. And listening to the description is the closest Vorobyaninov ever gets to the jewels, as by the time he finds the chair they were hidden in, someone else had already found the jewels, sold them, and spent the money on a public works project.
  • Driven to Madness: Father Fyodor and Vorobyaninov after someone else finds the jewels.
  • Downer Ending: And how. Father Fyodor is Driven to Madness, his wife's life is completely destroyed, and Kisa slices Bender's throat to avoid splitting the loot and then discovers that the jewels have already been found and that they have been spent on erecting a new public building, which drives him insane.
    • (Though in the sequel, Bender gets better, only bears a scar on his neck, and finally obtains the fortune he desires — only to find that he cannot spend it.)
    • In the film adaptation by Mel Brooks, Father Fyodor is left abandoned on a rocky spire with no way to get down, the jewels were found and spent on erecting a new public building months before Kisa and Bender find the last chair, and they end up begging in the streets.
  • Giftedly Bad: Lapis-Trubetskoy, whose poems are filled with inane tautologies. One of his colleagues calls him Lapsus-Trubetskoy. Later he is seen trying to sell poetry to several different magazine editors, changing the subject matter every timeā€”for example, he calls his submission to a medical journal "The Ballad of Gangrene."
  • Greed: The story could be seen as a criticism of capitalistic greed (something highly disapproved of in Socialist Russia). Ippolit and Fyodor were living comfortably before they learned of the jewels, but the desire for Petukhova's jewels caused them to destroy their livelihoods and their lives in pursuit of the hidden treasure. Meanwhile, the people who do find the jewels act like proper socialists and spend the treasure not on themselves, but on a project whose benefits they can share with their fellow workers.
  • Hastily Hidden MacGuffin: The entire plot is built on that. Madame Petukhova, an Imperial Russian noblewoman, hid her collection of jewelry in a chair during the Revolution of 1917, to prevent the revolutionaries from confiscating them. Years later, her son-in-law Ippolit Vorobyaninov learns about that from Madame on her deathbed, and starts to look for that chair. As you can guess from the title, there are eleven more chairs looking exactly like that one.
  • Impossible Thief: Played for Laughs. In the movie Alchen steals clothes from people on a painting. No, he doesn't cut them out, he just steals them.
  • Iconic Outfit: Bender's white scarf, sea captain's cap and checkerboard vest.
  • Indy Ploy: Another side of Ostap Bender's "The Great Combinator" persona. He is incredibly adept at inventing new scams on the fly and getting out of trouble with quick thinking.
  • Internal Homage: Due to time constraints, the Mell Brooks film cuts out all the Wacky Wayside Tribe scenes, including the iconic chess tournament. To compensate, one of the final scenes takes place in a chess room of the new railroad club.
  • Jerkass: Bender, when he feels no need to be The Charmer. Film versions tends to downgrade his jerkassery a bit.
  • Have a Gay Old Time: Al'hen, the "light blue thief / Goluboy Vorishka". At the time the book came out, his nickname would be understood as a reference to his superficial innocence and/or his constant conscience pangs. In modern Russian parlance, "Goluboy" means "gay".
  • Karma Houdini: Alchen, the most despicable character in the book.
  • Lighter and Softer: Downplayed with the 1970 Mel Brooks film, where Bender doesn't get killed, and after Vorobyaninov goes insane, Bender urges the crowd to help his broken partner, and they reconcile as partners in crime.
  • Lovable Rogue: Bender.
  • MacGuffin: The chair set.
  • A MacGuffin Full of Money: of very expensive jewelry, to be precise.
  • Meaningful Name: Town named Stargorod (literally "Oldtown").
  • Meaningless Villain Victory: After Father Fyodor gets lost in a village and goes insane, Vorobyaninov murders Ostap Bender to keep the loot for himself, only to discover that someone else already found the jewels and used them to build a new public recreation center, Vorobyaninov loses his sanity.
  • Mundane Solution/Muggles Do It Better: When Bender visits a newspaper, there's a brief episode about the employees discussing their own enrichment scheme: buy government bonds, win a large sum and purchase several cars to go to a Caucasian resort for vacation. Months later, when Bender happens to be at said resort, he meets the same people who did exactly that and succeeded, without any of the hardships Bender endured in his pursuit. He ends up begging money from them.
  • My Hair Came Out Green: Vorobyaninov tries to dye his hair and eyebrows and mustache a darker colour, but the dye is counterfeit and ends up turning him a rabid green colour. The poor sod ends up having to shave his head completely devoid of hair.
  • Naked People Trapped Outside: happened to engineer Shukin.
  • Needle in a Stack of Needles: The jewels are hidden in one of a set of twelve externally identical chairs.
  • Noblewoman's Laugh: Ellochka, in a slightly milder variant. Ho-ho.
  • Opportunistic Bastard: Vorobyanninov, who kills Ostap Bender after Father Fyodor goes mad, so he can get all the jewels for himself.
  • Rage Quit: Bender's reaction to losing at chess after pretending to be a grandmaster to raise money.
  • Replaced with Replica: Both the protagonists and their rival Father Feodor are looking for a set of chairs with a treasure hidden inside. Ostap manages to locate documents which detail where the chairs are. Father Feodor is after these documents, too, but he is late, and the archivist is angry that Ostap fooled him. So the archivist gives Feodor documents on another, identical set of chairs with no treasure inside.
  • Sanity Slippage: In the book, after Vorobyaninov murders Ostap Bender, he finds the last chair, only to discover that the jewels have already been found and used to build the new recreation center where the chair was found, and goes insane.
    • After following a bad lead, Father Fyodor ends up losing his sanity on a mountaintop.
  • Sinister Minister: Father Fyodor. He finds out about Vorobyaninov's talk with his dying mother-in-law (and therefore the chairs) by staying behind and listening at the keyhole after he gave her her final rites, and later, he persuades his long-suffering wife to sell practically all their possessions to finance his travels all around the Soviet Union in search of the chairs.
  • Scenery Porn: When characters travels down the Volga river and again in Caucasus mountains.
  • Spared by the Adaptation: Ostap Bender in Mel Brooks' 1970 film, as contrasted with the novel where he gets killed.
  • Unsympathetic Comedy Protagonist: Kisa Vorobyaninov.
  • Unknown Rival: Exaggerated with Ellochka Schukina and her ridiculous "rivalry" with Consuelo Vanderbilt.
  • Unperson: Referenced in the Mel Brooks adaptation. A street named after Russian nobility had its name crossed out and a new sign placed naming the street after heroes of the revolution. And one of those names is crossed out as well, as one of the heroes honored by the street name (Trotsky) had fallen out of favor with the leaders of the revolution.
  • Upper-Class Twit: Vorobyaninov squandered his estate and his wife's dowry. By 1917 they were living at the expense of his mother-in-law. This was the reason why she hesitated to tell him about the jewelry.
  • Wounded Gazelle Gambit: In the 1970 Mel Brooks film, Vorobyaninov and Bender have rehearsed a routine where Vorobyaninov falls to the ground and fakes an epileptic seizure to win the crowd's sympathy.