The Faculty of Useless Knowledge

Yury Dombrovsky

translated from the Russian by Alan Myers
Harvill Press 1997 [1978]
A book review by Danny Yee © 2003
Though trained as a classicist, in 1937 Zybin is working as an archaeologist in Alma Ata, Kazakhstan. When an old girlfriend Lina turns up, he goes looking for some dried fish (marinka) to share with her, but gets himself into hot water. Some fishermen have turned up at the museum with gold artifacts, only to disappear with them after their value is established. The first investigators are just concerned that a whole hoard of gold might have escaped them, but NKVD officer Yakov Neiman dreams of show trials like the ones being held in Moscow...

A "zek" caught up in the Kafkaesque nightmare of the Soviet legal system, Zybin refuses to compromise, unwilling to confess to minor crimes that might allow a lighter sentence. Subjected to increasing psychological pressure, he sustains himself with his knowledge of history and with memories of the holiday by the Black Sea where he met Lina.

In the end Zybin gets exceptionally lucky and goes free. Dombrovsky himself was not so fortunate, doing two long stints in Siberian labour camps, from 1937 to 1943 and from 1949 to 1955, and some of that experience is conveyed to us through Zybin's cell-mates: Buddo, a veteran of the prison system, and Kalandarashvili, a veteran of the Kolyma labour camp. There are many other autobiographical details in The Faculty of Useless Knowledge and one suspects that Zybin, perhaps too heroic to be entirely plausible, is Dombrovsky as he wished he had been.

While Zybin is in prison, other characters come to the forefront. His colleague Kornilov becomes an informer, reporting on his interactions with Father Andrey, with whom he discusses the trial of Jesus. And Neiman and his niece Nilovna and "brother" Roman, also prosecutors, have their own problems: they are not demonised, but are all too human cogs in the system. The "faculty" of the title is that of law, and the perversion of law and justice inherent in Stalin's terror is viewed from all angles.

The Faculty of Useless Knowledge is a philosophical novel which continually invokes history — Jesus, Tacitus and the Roman emperors, the French Revolution, and Tsarist Russia. And it has other digressions: a description of the Alma Ata melon market, for example, and a piece on the artist Kalmykov. All of this is mostly integrated into the story, with only the occasional lapse into the didactic or polemical — when, for example, Buddo implausibly recounts to Zybin a four page history of the NKVD and the Special Board. The result is an involving read, not heavy going at all, and The Faculty of Useless Knowledge deserves to be more widely recognised: it can stand alongside much better known novels of the period.

May 2003

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%T The Faculty of Useless Knowledge
%A Dombrovsky, Yury
%M Russian
%F Myers, Alan
%I Harvill Press
%D 1997 [1978]
%O paperback
%G ISBN 1860463436
%P 533pp