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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Faculty of Useless Knowledge

Yury Dombrovsky

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To purchase The Faculty of Useless Knowledge

Title: The Faculty of Useless Knowledge
Author: Yury Dombrovsky
Genre: Novel
Written: 1975 (Eng.:1995)
Length: 533 pages
Original in: Russian
Availability: The Faculty of Useless Knowledge - US
. The Faculty of Useless Knowledge - UK
. Die Fakultät unnützer Dinge - Deutschland
  • Russian title: Факультет ненужных вещей
  • Translated by Alan Myers
  • The Faculty of Useless Knowledge is in many respects a sequel to The Keeper of Antiquities (see our review)

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Our Assessment:

A- : a big, expansive slice of Soviet life in the 1930's, well done.

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
New Statesman B+ 5/4/1996 Robert S. Pekham
The NY Times Book Rev. A- 17/11/1996 David M. Bethea
Publishers Weekly A 2/9/1996 .
The Spectator B 16/3/1996 John Bayley

  Review Consensus:

  Well done, with the Stalinist shadow hanging a bit too much over it.

  From the Reviews:
  • "Wonderfully written and darkly witty." - Publishers Weekly

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The anonymous and eponymous Keeper of Antiquities of Dombrovsky's first novel to be translated into English returns here as Georgi Zybin. Picking up pretty much where the previous novel left off, Zybin is arrested for the theft of some gold, the threat that lingered in the background of The Keeper of Antiquities striking, full force, here. Set in 1937, as the Stalinist terror reached its heights, Dombrovsky's approach is another variation on an otherwise relatively familiar theme. Like the earlier novel, it takes places largely in Alma-Ata, in Kazakhstan (where Dombrovsky was sent in internal exile). There Neiman, the local NKVD agent, wants to stage show-trials that can compete with the Moscow trials and Zybin is only one of many obvious targets.
       Zybin gets caught in the wheels of the machinery, as do the others around him. It is impossible to help him, as every word and action that proves his innocence is twisted to support the charges against him. Dombrovsky takes full advantage of the absurdity of the Soviet system for much of his material. The horror of the process of wearing the supposed enemies of the state down that Dombrovsky describes is less physical than psychological, and Dombrovsky ably captures the tremendous mental strain on the accused -- and on the society as a general.
       Zybin himself tries to escape in a world of his imagination and learning, well-integrated into the novel. Remembering the past -- both his personal past and history itself -- Zybin tries to fight against the absurdities of the present. A scholar of "useless knowledge", Zybin proves that it is anything but, sustaining him. The absurdity of the system (as so clearly illustrated throughout the novel) also leads to its unexpected ending: the system is both arbitrary and self-destructive, and while Zybin is freed the system itself is clearly condemned.
       The novel is clearly heavily autobiographical, and as Dombrovsky's magnum opus it does occasionally get weighed down by the fill of anger and resentment (however justified) against the absurd regime which took so much from him which he felt compelled to record. Nevertheless, it is a work of literature that does transcend its subject matter, and it is certainly worthy. There is a fair amount of philosophizing here as well, though we found Dombrovsky handled most of this well, interweaving it appropriately with the story itself. Dombrovsky manages to do a great deal in his hefty novel, and most of it is well-written and interesting.
       We do recommend it highly, though readers should be aware of what they are getting themselves into.

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The Faculty of Useless Knowledge: Reviews: Other books by Dombrovsky under review: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Soviet author Yury Osipovich Dombrovsky (Юрий Домбровский) (1909-1978) was born in Moscow but spent much of his life in internal exile in Alma-Aty, Kazakhstan. He was also sent to the notorious Kolmya camps, but survived this and other encounters with Stalin's brutal regime. Rehabilitated in the 1950's he was able to return to Moscow, where he lived until his death. An important author he received too little recognition, at home and abroad, until the publication of The Faculty of Useless Knowledge in 1978.

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