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
Saturday 09 March 1996
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.
TV reviewBroadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair
Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere
TVThe Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Migrant crisis: Greek soldier saved 20 people singlehandedly off Rhodes beach
- 2 Sofyen Belamouadden murder: The inside story of a crime that horrified Britain
- 3 UK weather: Britain braced for snow as arctic air mass moves in
- 4 Aaron and Melissa Klein: Oregon anti-gay bakers ordered to pay $135,000 after refusing to make cake for same-sex wedding
- 5 'Isis' schoolgirls: Missing British teenager tweets picture of her Syrian takeaway
Poldark, series 1 finale, review: How a costume drama became a Sunday night swoon-fest
Al Pacino admits he was nearly fired from The Godfather and it's still his most 'difficult role'
Warner Music owner Len Blavatnik tops Sunday Times Rich List
Game of Thrones season 5 episode 3, review: Sansa and manhood-lopping torturer Ramsay Bolton - really?
The day I starred in Only Fools and Horses
General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
The sickening truth about food banks that the Tories don't want you to know
Migrant boat disaster: Ukip candidate mocks victims in sickening Twitter post
Nigel Farage wants the BBC to stop making programmes like Doctor Who, Strictly Come Dancing, and Top Gear
Global warming: Scientists say temperatures could rise by 6C by 2100 and call for action ahead of UN meeting in Paris
General Election 2015: Britain would become a 'communist dictatorship' under Ed Miliband and Nicola Sturgeon, claims wife of Michael Gove