THE FACULTY OF USELESS KNOWLEDGE by Yury Dombrovsky

THE FACULTY OF USELESS KNOWLEDGE

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KIRKUS REVIEW

 An imposing fictional portrayal of the Stalinist terror, set in 1937 in the eastern Russian republic of Kazakhstan (on the Chinese border) and featuring themes and characters from Dombrovsky's earlier novel, The Keeper of Antiquities (1969). That phrase in fact identifies the central character here, Georgi Zybin, an archaeologist who has the bad luck to supervise an expedition during which an ancient gold diadem is unearthed and stolen by workmen employed on the dig. Zybin is accused of the theft, and also other crimes against the state, and is imprisoned and subjected to a long process of interrogation that widens to include his former lover Polina, his colleague Kornilov (who will betray him), and Father Andrey Kutorga, an exiled priest who is writing a history of the trial and crucifixion of Christ. This big book (first published in 1978) succeeds brilliantly on several levels: As a nail-biting anatomy of the repetitive rigor of the imprisonment and interrogation process; as a series of incisive character portraits, not just of the embittered and defiant Zybin and his fellow victims (several of whom tell their stories in excruciating detail), but also of the zealous Soviet functionaries whose determination to emulate the ``show trials'' of supposed traitors currently taking place in Moscow is shown to be rooted in their own servility and insecurity. And, in a stunning parallel narrative, the career of Christ's judge Pontius Pilate is implicitly compared--in a number of impassioned conversations between Kornilov and Father Andrei--to the banality of evil (to borrow Hannah Arendt's resonant phrase) exhibited by those cogs in the Soviet machinery, struggling to express the will of their Beloved Leader Josef Stalin (who makes several vivid cameo appearances). Thickly textured, eloquently argued, as informative as it is dramatic: a superb novel that brings to our attention an important near-contemporary (Dombrovsky died in 1978) whose books belong on the same shelf with those of Bulgakov and Solzhenitsyn.

Pub Date: Oct. 28th, 1996
ISBN: 1-86-046053-4
Page count: 544pp
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Sept. 15th, 1996