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A smoked-fish treasure hunt

The Faculty of Useless Knowledge by Yury Dombrovsky trans Alan Myers Harvill, pounds 15.99; Hugo Barnacle celebrates publication of a rambling Russian masterpiece
Yury Dombrovsky died in Moscow in 1978, shortly after the first Russian edition of The Faculty of Useless Knowledge appeared in Paris. A former camp inmate who served two sentences in the Gulag for the usual reason (nothing in particular), he was rehabilitated by Khruschev and saw some of his work issued under official Soviet imprints, but he was obliged to publish this last novel, his masterpiece, abroad.

It details an episode in the Stalinist terror of 1937. A couple of men bring some fragments of an ancient gold diadem to the city museum of Alma- Ata in Kazakhstan. They say they found the stuff on a partridge-shooting expedition. Accepting a 300- rouble reward, they disappear smartish leaving false names. The local secret police then swoop and arrest Zybin, the museum's Keeper of Antiquities, for theft of socialist property, sabotage, Trotskyite activity and so on.

According to the publishers' blurb, this happens because the diadem has disappeared along with the treasure-hunters. Some confusion here is understandable, since everyone talks about ''the gold floating off'' and Dombrovsky's narrative, driven by dialogue, is often oblique and disjointed in a comic style oddly reminiscent of Kingsley Amis, but in fact the diadem goes nowhere except into an NKVD evidence bag.

The ''missing'' gold at issue is the rest of the hoard, which the museum authorities have supposedly let slip by failing to grill the treasure- hunters properly. The NKVD claim there must have been 25 kilos at least, but they're making it up, probably on the basis of a regional quota for archaeological finds set out by some Moscow institute. In short, Zybin is charged with conspiracy to steal something which may never have existed.

They seem to pick on Zybin, who took no part in the transaction, because he was once questioned by the authorities when a student acquaintance committed suicide, and anyone who has ever been questioned is an anti- Soviet element by definition. (This was how Dombrovsky himself got into trouble.)

The NKVD captain, Neiman, Jewish and fearful for his job, wants to stage a big show trial, just like they have in Moscow, and Zybin can be made to fit the bill as an enemy agent. He was even arrested while making for the Chinese border.

This is a nice touch. We know that Zybin was really wandering up-river to buy some black-market home-smoked marinka fish, because the treasure- hunters offered some of this rare commodity to one of the museum staff, which means the fisherman might be able to provide a lead, but if Zybin admits this to Neiman's investigators he will be admitting... conspiracy to steal socialist property, only fish instead of gold.

The bulk of the book deals with Zybin's resistance to weeks of interrogation. There is a wonderfully sinister Alice in Wonderland humour about the investigators' solemn attempts to build a case out of nothing, and the effect is in no way dented by Dombrovsky's insistence on portraying the secret police with a certain rich sympathy.

Being Russian, however, the story rambles quite widely. We are given chunks of a treatise one of the characters is writing on the betrayal and trial of Jesus, as in Bulgakov's The Master and Margarita. Zybin shares a cell with an old lag who memorably describes life in the Siberian camps. The old lag, a Georgian, has written to his boyhood friend, Stalin, to remind him of a small loan outstanding since 1904, and we are shown Stalin at his dacha wondering whether to sign a release form or a death warrant.

Other equally real but far less famous persons appear under their own names, among them Dombrovsky's future wife, Clara. Her presence, like that of the poplars rustling in the breeze outside the windows of the interrogation room, can be taken as a sign that the novel will not degenerate into mere black comedy. Rather, it is tragicomedy, a higher and wiser thing.