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20 November 2018

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Book Review

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Ilf & Petrov's American Road Trip

by Ilya Ilf & Evgeny Petrov, Edited by Erika Woolf

This new translation (the last was in 1937) of this almost-lost work is a gem. And not just because it is by two of Soviet Russia’s greatest writers and humorists. After all, it is always fascinating to hear how others see us, to see what photos they take, what impressions they bring away. Ilf and Petrov were trenchant observers of human nature, and this travelogue of their 1935 trip across America is simply a piece of classic journalism.

Of course, this is not the pair’s funniest work. Hardly surprising, given that the system they lampooned with The Twelve Chairs and The Golden Calf (sadly, only the former is currently in print in English) was, by the time the pair turned up in America, engulfed in a paroxysm of self-mutilation. But the account of their journey is funny and at times biting, even taking into account Ilf and Petrov’s need to toe the Party line (they were working for Pravda, after all).

Add in the candid and revealing photos of everyday Americans, and you have a true collector’s item. In the end, reading this book is like leafing through an old family album full of vaguely familiar faces and places, with running commentary by a sarcastic, immigrant uncle.

— Paul E. Richardson

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2007