The Embezzlers by Valentin Kataev
There’s something really special about Soviet satire from the 1920s. When you look back at the decade, so many great works came out – in particular, Bulgakov’s “The Fatal Eggs” and “Heart of a Dog”, Ilf and Petrov’s “The Twelve Chairs”, as well as slightly less-well known works such as Yuri Olesha’s “Envy”. Maybe there was something in the air, because Valentin Kataev (the brother of Petrov) also produced a rather wonderful satirical work himself, in the form of “The Embezzlers”.
There were of course many shorter works in the same vein by all these authors, and I *have* been reading several of Kataev’s pieces recently, as well as his wonderful memoir “The Grass of Oblivion”. It was enjoying these so much that prompted me to send for a copy of “The Embezzlers” and I’m really glad I did. It was Kataev’s first novel, published in 1926, and my copy is a battered old 1973 US library edition; it’s a reprint of a 1929 Dial Press edition translated by Leonide Zarine, and I’ve seen this described as the one to read – particularly, I suppose, as he translated it close to the original date of publication.
The embezzlers of the title are one Philip Stephanovitch Prohoroff, a respectable chief accountant working for a Soviet trust in Moscow, and his cashier, known as Young Ivan. Prohoroff is married to the rather terrifying Yaninochka, and Young Ivan is a country boy trying to make good in the city. To be honest, calling the two embezzlers is rather overdoing it; in fact, they have no real intention of running off with sums of money. However, Nikita the messenger will keep going on and on about the amount of people who are absconding with official funds, and somehow, after withdrawing a cheque from the bank for wages and expenses, the two hapless men end up drunk and on a train to Leningrad….
In fact, alcohol plays a large part in the story and the men seem to be in a constant state of inebriation. They’re soon taken under the wing of Isabella, an alarming woman of the world who commences to fleece them for as much as she can get; and in fact our two heroes seem to be incapable of holding onto their money and are constantly being conned out of large sums. They are taken in by a gang of so-called Royals in Leningrad who turn out to be a collection of out of work actors; vast sums are squandered on food, drink and entertainment; and in desperation to escape from Isabella they flee to the countryside, ending up in Ivan’s old village. However, things seem no better here and the money is running out – and quite how our two embezzlers will survive is not clear….
The colleagues crept into a queer, narrow sledge, which was strewn inside with straw, put the cover over their knees and drove to the town, which had the same appearance as all other towns of the Soviet Union – ten old churches and two new ones, an unfinished building and a fire station, and a closed market-place secured by huge bolts.
Well, Kataev was certainly having a lot of fun here, and swiping away at everything: so-called respectable citizens desperate for a glimpse of old royalty; the amount of alcohol that seemed to be imbibed in Soviet Russia; the amount of people on the make under a so-called Communist regime; and the foolishness of just about everyone encountered in the tale.
In fact, I found myself wondering quite how he got away with so much criticism of the times and stayed in one piece, until I recalled that during the 1920s Russia was struggling under the NEP (New Economic Policy) where a limited amount of ‘state capitalism’ was allowed. The book (and all the other satire of the decade) reflects an era before Stalin had tightened his grip on his empire, and in these transitional times it was still possible to criticise the authorities. After the NEP was abolished in 1928 the dictator came more to the fore and by the time the next decade was well underway he was in a position to unleash the Great Purges of the 1930s.
The train dragged slowly from station to station, and night dragged as slowly towards the train, creeping through the rattling carriages with their banging doors, with their shadows of heads and flickering flames of candles in rattling lanterns. Young Ivan stood in the corridor of the uncomfortable carriage and, pressing the palm of his hand on the low handle of the door, gazed intently through the rain-splashed window. His knees and his back ached with having stood so long in one place.
But back to “The Embezzlers”. Despite being great fun to read, a kind of frantic, madcap adventure of the type that would turn up in later Hollywood movies (and believe me, there’s just *so* much alcohol!), there’s a thoughtful undercurrent. Kataev’s writing (as rendered here) is excellent and he conjures up atmosphere brilliantly. The opening paragraphs, where Prohoroff stomps off to his office through a rainy Moscow, are striking and bring the city vividly to life; and Leningrad (Petrograd/Petersburg/St. Petersburg/whichever name you prefer) is a living, breathing city too. He doesn’t sugar-coat his look at urban life, but neither does he present the countryside through rose-tinted glasses. Poor Young Ivan, who spends much of the book out of his comfort zone, longs for his home village at one point and is initially delighted when they reach it. However, he soon remembers how dull and repetitive life was back there, and how much he wanted to get away, leaving him wishing to return to Moscow to seek out a simple life with the beautiful step-daughter of Prohoroff…
In the end, “The Embezzlers” seemed to be making the point that we really should accept that the grass will *always” seem greener on the other side of the fence, but in fact the world is pretty much the same all over and we might as well make the best of what we’ve got. Certainly, the two heroes constantly attempt to find the high life but end up with the same old troupe of dancers in pantaloons doing Ukrainian folk dances – wherever they go! As I said earlier, Kataev’s writing is really excellent, and very evocative in places, and the whole experience of reading “The Embezzlers” was a joyous one, leaving me even keener to try to track down any more of his work available in English!