BOOKS : Buried evidence of a richer life

THE FACULTY OF USELESS KNOWLEDGE by Yury Dombrovsky, trs Alan Myers Harvill Press pounds 15.99/pounds 10.99
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YURY DOMBROVSKY was arrested in 1932 and spent most of the next 30 years living in exile in the barren Kazakh steppeland of Alma Ata, near the border with China. Released in 1955 and rehabilitated the following year, he lived in Moscow until his death in 1978.

In this, his second novel, started in the 1960s and published in Paris in 1978, Dombrovsky returns to the boundless Asiatic landscape whose paths, monuments and cemeteries remained an endless source of mystery and fascination for him.

Digging deep in the burning sands to uncover the past, his archaeologist hero, Georgi Zybin, finds a buried sarcophagus containing a Bronze Age skull and a gold diadem depicting a sorceress mounted on a dragon. As he pieces together centuries of lost evidence from archaeological maps, bones and fragments, Zybin contemplates the skull and speculates on the causes of death. For him, the diadem represents a whole world captured in gold, a thing of beauty, a key to the past and to the two women with whom he is in love. For the authorities, the diadem's value is reduced to mere "sunflower seeds" - the "useless knowledge" of the title.

As archaeology's unsolved mysteries pile up, special investigator Neiman is digging for evidence against Zybin, in order to stage a spectacular "confessional" show-trial which will put himself and Alma Ata on the map. After meeting the two women he loves, Zybin takes four crates of vodka to the river to barter for fish. On that same day, the gold treasure mysteriously disappears, and he is charged with its theft.

Once in prison, Zybin is sustained by lengthy dream-flashbacks of the sea, the steppe, and the castles, cities and civilisations which lie preserved beneath it. He learns from a fellow inmate that if he wants to come out as a human being he must study, harden himself, be afraid of nothing, believe nothing and ask for nothing. But his "useless knowledge" and his faith in the legal process means that his interrogators are always one step ahead of him as they question him about the vodka, the women and the fish, bleeding him drop by drop of his life's blood in the search for the one indisputable trump-card on which to hang their trial. But Neiman's laboriously constructed case finally founders, the gold is miraculously recovered, and Zybin is released. When he meets Neiman in town a month later he is struck by what a sorry figure he cuts.

Zybin's nightmare is made the more chilling through the contrasts with people's human preoccupations and the wild beauty of the steppe - its withering heat, its sedge swamps, its dense blue forget-me-nots, its foaming rivers, the glint and shimmer of leaves. When a worker is felled by sunstroke, smells of hospital and death mingle with those of herbs and apples. Beautiful secretaries gossip as they file death warrants. Outside the interrogation rooms children play in the park, the sun shines and people sing: "Life is better, comrades."

Dombrovsky writes with savage intensity about the terror and dislocation of the Stalinist machine; the fear that locks people inside themselves forever; the third person present at every conversation, "without bodily presence, spawned by the very air of the year 1937, dense and pregnant with terrors, listening in to every word, remembering all, saying nothing and misinterpreting what he has heard, after his own fashion, the most fearful fashion, one not compatible with life".

Even the prosecutors - inscrutable, deadly and terminally wretched - are endearing with their talk of swimming, drinking, film-shows and family squabbles. Neiman discusses with his cousin the psychological tragedy he is writing about the "spiritual regeneration of a saboteur under the humane methods of Soviet interrogation", but he is tormented by the search for love and poetry.

Dombrovsky writes with his heart's blood, and Alan Myers' translation wisely does not try to tidy up his wrenching, often garrulous prose, with its Dostoyevskyian extremes and digressions. This is the true rough voice of prison writing, about people who have reached the limits of their mortality, and whose most human qualities are their undoing.