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.

Arts and Entertainment
Legendary charm: Clive Owen and Keira Knightley in 2004’s ‘King Arthur’
FilmGuy Ritchie is the latest filmmaker to tackle the legend
Arts and Entertainment
Corporate affair: The sitcom has become a satire of corporate culture in general

TV review

Broadcasting House was preparing for a visit from Prince Charles spoiler alert
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvReview: There are some impressive performances by Claire Skinner and Lorraine Ashbourne in Inside No. 9, Nana's Party spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Glastonbury's pyramid stage

Glastonbury Michael Eavis reveals final headline act 'most likely' British pair

Arts and Entertainment
Ewan McGregor looks set to play Lumiere in the Beauty and the Beast live action remake

Film Ewan McGregor joins star-studded Beauty and the Beast cast as Lumiere

Arts and Entertainment
Charlie feels the lack of food on The Island with Bear Grylls

TV

The Island with Bear Grylls under fire after male contestants kill and eat rare crocodile
Arts and Entertainment
Aaron Taylor-Johnson as Quicksilver and Elizabeth Olsen as Scarlet Witch, in a scene from Avengers: Age Of Ultron
filmReview: A great cast with truly spectacular special effects - but is Ultron a worthy adversaries for our superheroes? spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Robin Ince performing in 2006
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
Beth (played by Jo Joyner) in BBC1's Ordinary Lies
tvReview: There’s bound to be a second series, but it needs to be braver spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Paul Hollywood and Mary Berry, the presenters of The Great Comic Relief Bake Off 2015

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A still from Harold Ramis' original Groundhog Day film, released in 1993

Theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Christopher Eccleston (centre) plays an ex-policeman in this cliché-riddled thriller

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey looks very serious as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

TV This TV review contains spoilers
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Wiz Khalifa performs on stage during day one of the Wireless Festival at Perry Park in Birmingham

music
Arts and Entertainment
Festival-goers soak up the atmosphere at Glastonbury

music

Arts and Entertainment
Star Wars creator George Lucas

film

Arts and Entertainment

music

Arts and Entertainment
A shot from the forthcoming Fast and Furious 7

film

Arts and Entertainment
The new-look Top of the Pops could see Fearne Cotton returns as a host alongside Dermot O'Leary

TV

Arts and Entertainment
The leader of the Church of Scientology David Miscavige

TV

Arts and Entertainment
No half measures: ‘The Secret Life of the Pub’

Grace Dent on TV The Secret Life of the Pub is sexist, ageist and a breath of fresh air

  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    Not even the 'putrid throat' could stop the Ross Poldark swoon-fest'

    How a costume drama became a Sunday night staple
    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers as he pushes Tories on housing

    Miliband promises no stamp duty for first-time buyers

    Labour leader pushes Tories on housing
    Aviation history is littered with grand failures - from the the Bristol Brabazon to Concorde - but what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?

    Aviation history is littered with grand failures

    But what went wrong with the SuperJumbo?
    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of Soviet-style 'iron curtains' right across Europe

    Fortress Europe?

    Fear of Putin, Islamists and immigration is giving rise to a new generation of 'iron curtains'
    Never mind what you're wearing, it's what you're reclining on

    Never mind what you're wearing

    It's what you're reclining on that matters
    General Election 2015: Chuka Umunna on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband

    Chuka Umunna: A virus of racism runs through Ukip

    The shadow business secretary on the benefits of immigration, humility – and his leader Ed Miliband
    Yemen crisis: This exotic war will soon become Europe's problem

    Yemen's exotic war will soon affect Europe

    Terrorism and boatloads of desperate migrants will be the outcome of the Saudi air campaign, says Patrick Cockburn
    Marginal Streets project aims to document voters in the run-up to the General Election

    Marginal Streets project documents voters

    Independent photographers Joseph Fox and Orlando Gili are uploading two portraits of constituents to their website for each day of the campaign
    Game of Thrones: Visit the real-life kingdom of Westeros to see where violent history ends and telly tourism begins

    The real-life kingdom of Westeros

    Is there something a little uncomfortable about Game of Thrones shooting in Northern Ireland?
    How to survive a social-media mauling, by the tough women of Twitter

    How to survive a Twitter mauling

    Mary Beard, Caroline Criado-Perez, Louise Mensch, Bunny La Roche and Courtney Barrasford reveal how to trounce the trolls
    Gallipoli centenary: At dawn, the young remember the young who perished in one of the First World War's bloodiest battles

    At dawn, the young remember the young

    A century ago, soldiers of the Empire – many no more than boys – spilt on to Gallipoli’s beaches. On this 100th Anzac Day, there are personal, poetic tributes to their sacrifice
    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves

    Follow the money as never before

    Dissent is slowly building against the billions spent on presidential campaigns – even among politicians themselves, reports Rupert Cornwell
    Samuel West interview: The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents

    Samuel West interview

    The actor and director on austerity, unionisation, and not mentioning his famous parents
    General Election 2015: Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Imagine if the leading political parties were fashion labels

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, on what the leaders' appearances tell us about them
    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka: Home can be the unsafest place for women

    The architect of the HeForShe movement and head of UN Women on the world's failure to combat domestic violence