Diabolic Signification: Money and Writing in Il'f/Petrov's Devnadcat' stul'ev and Zoshchenko's Golubaja kniga

Jurij Murashov, University of Konstanz

Semiotic problems of money and writing, already intensively dealt with by Gogol', Dostoevskij or Tolstoj in the Russian literature of the nineteenth century dramatically increased in the Soviet period. From the 20s to the 30s the attitude towards the money and writing media was dominated by a complicated, double bind Situation; on the one hand Soviet society was increasingly fascinated by mythological and mythopoetical tendencies, putting all explicitly signifying and symbolic activities under taboo; the persecution of avant-garde literature and art, experiments in eliminating money and the distinction of the law-based judicial system are aspects of the same process of the total reign of myth and ideology. On the other hand Soviet society developing in these years to a more or less modern mass culture was involved in a process of far-reaching technologization of all forms of social, political economic and also private communication; under the influence of the new media radio, telephone or film, the traditional media such as language, writing and money were reinterpreted.

In what way this contradictory process works we can see when we analyse the interrelation of motifs of writing and money in two eminently satirical texts: in the Soviet rogue novel Dvenadcat' stul'ev (1928) by the twin writers Il'ja A. Il'f and Evgenij P. Petrov and in Michail M. Zoshchenko's novel series Golubaja kniga (1934/35).

In discussion of Dvenadcat' stul'ev we will concentrate on the chapter "The alphabet is the mirror of life" ("Alfevit—zerkalo zhizni,quotes>), in which the hero, Ostap Bender, cheats the archivist Korobejnikov in order to obtain basic information for the whole following development of the plot. This chapter is interesting in the light of our interpretation because it exposes pre-Revolutionary Russia and Soviet culture concerning their different conceptions of signification, there is the archivist, who believes in closed, literary-based systems of representation and signs and in contract-based verbal and economic communication. His opponent, the "great combiner" and fraud Ostap Bender dominates every situation not only by his Oedipal cleverness but also by his rhetoric strategies, using the spoken word and operating with its performative and almost magic power. In opposition to the old archivist one can see how the character of Osip Bender incorporates and ironically reflects essential elements of the official Soviet concept of signification, which also operates not so much with closed (literary based) systems of economic and verbal communication but mainly with the performative power of the propagandistic word.

The power of magic conversion by signs is also the main subject in the chapter "Money" ("Den'gi") in Zoshchenko's series of novels, entitled Golubaja kniga. At first glance it seems to be a satire on money, criticising it from a Soviet point of view as a media having a tempting and corrupting influence on human imagination and relationships. At the second glance, however, Zoshchenko's satire turns out to be highly ambivalent; reproducing the Soviet critique of money and capitalism, Zoshchenko reveals the inner mechanism of the Soviet conception of signification and language, which aims at controlling all hermeneutical spaces of interpretation and of imagination opened by systems of verbal, economic or aesthetic signs. The point is that Zoshchenko in this way shows his own and all (aesthetic) writing to be deeply involved in this diabolic money-signification ideologically damned by Soviet culture.

This semiotic and aesthetic interrelation of money and writing is the reason why Zoshchenko decided to begin his book with a satire on money—and it is also the reason, which caused the Soviet institutions of censorship to put the book on the index immediately after it had been published.