Analysis of Satiric Devices in Neobyknovennye istorii iz žizni goroda Kolokolamska by Il′ja Il′f and Evgenij Petrov

Of the many satirical works of Il’ja Il′f and Evgenij Petrov only their two novels, Twelve Chairs (1927-1928) and The Golden Calf (1929-1931) have been thoroughly analyzed by scholars (Ščeglov). The writers’ other works, mostly short stories and feuilletons, are still relatively little known and have not been subjects of literary criticism. In this paper I will analyze satiric devices used by Il′f and Petrov in the series of short stories Neobyknovennye istorii iz žizni goroda Kolokolamska (1928–1929). On the basis of this analysis I will draw a general schema that underlies the structure of each story in the series. Stories and tales about towns inhabited by fools have deep roots in world literature: from German tales about Schildburgers (1598) to Saltykov-Ščedrin’s Istorii odnogo goroda (1869–1870). Il′f and Petrov follow this literary tradition by portraying a new generation of fools, produced by the combination of two different realities—the pre-Revolutionary Russian province and the Soviet bureaucratic system. The authors create a mythical, but at the same time amazingly realistic world of Soviet fools that incorporates all the vices Il′f and Petrov believe to be alien to Soviet society. One of the main sources of comic effect is the incompatibility between pre-Revolutionary and Soviet realities as well as between the fantastic and realistic dimensions in which Kolokolamsk exists. However, it is profoundly wrong to suggest that Il′f and Petrov ridicule Soviet Union. On the contrary, they only satirize things that in their view hinder the development of the young socialist state.

Henri Bergson writes: “a comic meaning is invariably obtained when an absurd idea is fitted into a well established form.” To accomplish comic effect Il′f and Petrov need not label citizens of Kolokolamsk as fools. The satire becomes even sharper as a result of juxtaposing the “normal” people with their abnormal, absurd behavior. Such juxtaposition is achieved both on the level of plot and on the level of language. The authors create many structural and linguistic hybrids that illustrate the contrast between the logical and the absurd in Kolokolamsk. Structural hybrids include, among others, confluence of classical literary motifs with Soviet reality. Linguistic hybrids are manifested through numerous proper names, for instance russko-ukrainskoe obščestvo “Get′ negramotnost′!” or street names such as Bol′šaja Mestkomovskaja ulica.

In Neobyknovennye istorii iz žizni goroda Kolokolamska Il′f and Petrov employ many other satiric devices that are also characteristic of their other works. The analysis of these devices sheds new light on the writers’ artistic method in the larger context of Russian and world literary traditions.

Bergson, Henry. 1956. “Laughter.” In Comedy. Garden City, New York: Doubleday Anchor Books. 61–146.

Shcheglov, Y. About The Novels The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf by I. Il′f and E. Petrov. Moscow: Panorama,1995.