Dombrovsky’s Keeper of Antiquity.

I’ve finished Yury Dombrovsky’s Хранитель древности, translated by Glenny as The Keeper of Antiquities, rendering the name under which Novy mir insisted on publishing it in 1964; I prefer to call it The Keeper of Antiquity, following Dombrovsky’s original title (restored in later book publication). It’s an amazing novel, bearing no resemblance whatever to the vague idea of it I had from reading references to it as “a key to understanding the terrible Stalinist purges of the late 1930s” and the like — a pox on criticism that’s obsessed with politics! The purges are there, yes, and they become more present and frightening in the latter part of the book, but it’s a novel, not a tract, and the focus is on the protagonist, an archeologist trying to focus on his work and the distant past while the present, the terrible year 1937, intrudes more and more. (One of the saddest moments comes in the last few pages, when the narrator says “В этих людях еще жило, продолжалось и волновалось прошлое, то, что для меня вообще не существовало” [For these people the past was still alive, it continued to agitate them, while for me it just didn’t exist].) The complete review does a decent job in its brief account of the book, but it is too smug and dismissive (“Dombrovsky is perhaps too obvious in his choice of symbols… The episodes Dombrovsky relates are interesting and amusing, an unusual picture of a part and a time of the Soviet Union still too unfamiliar in the West”), treating it as an aperitif rather than the hard liquor it manifestly is (“Dilute it!” cries an appalled drunk when the narrator mischievously offers him pure alcohol).

I’d rather approach it from a different direction. At the start of the novel the narrator describes how he came to Alma Ata in 1933 and had to walk from the outskirts to the center of town, frequently losing his way because the ubiquitous gardens, orchards, and poplars made all the blocks look alike. Finally he finds an old watchman dozing in a park next to a strange building that reminds him of St. Basil’s in Moscow; he awakens the man, who immediately starts telling him about the local architect Andrei Zenkov, who built the cathedral next to them as well as many other buildings in the center of town. Dombrovsky then goes into an excursus on Zenkov, complete with footnotes, praising him as a little-known local genius with his own way of approaching his art. Later he does the same with the collector Castagnier, who scoured the world looking for objects that might relate to the history of the region, and the local artist Nikolai Khludov, who had no artistic training and was dismissed by sophisticates but was a master of drawing and loved everything he painted — Dombrovsky devotes an entire chapter to him. All these people are dismissed by the Soviet bureaucrats who are interested only in what can provide socialist education to the people, but the narrator loves them for their love of the region (he quotes a description of Zenkov that says “Он любил город и край” [He loved the city and the region]) — at one point his colleague says “Надо же знать край!” [You have to know the region!], which sums up one of the core truths of the book.

To pick up another strand, at the start of Chapter 3 the director of the museum, a former officer who likes the narrator but tries to keep him reined in, says antireligious propaganda is important, and “Ее кто за нас вести будет — Пушкин?” [Who’s going to do it if we don’t — Pushkin?]. This is funny, of course (and an example, from the centenary year when Pushkin was ubiquitous in the USSR, of a joke format that would remain popular for decades), but Pushkin becomes part of the artistic fabric later in the chapter, when the director quotes him: “Возьми себе шубу, да не было б шуму” [Take the coat, so there won’t be a fuss]. These are the last two lines of the poem that begins:

Ходил Стенька Разин
В Астрахань-город
Торговать товаром.

Stenka Razin went
To Astrakhan city
To do some business.

The voivode demands bribes, and Razin gives him valuable things, but when the voivode demands his rich new fur coat, Razin refuses. The voivode says:

«Отдай, Стенька Разин,
Отдай с плеча шубу!
Отдашь, так спасибо;
Не отдашь — повешу
Что во чистом поле
На зеленом дубе,
На зеленом дубе,
Да в собачьей шубе».

“Give it to me, Stenka Razin,
Give me the coat from your shoulders!
If you give it, then thanks;
If you don’t, I’ll hang you
In the open field
On a green oak,
On a green oak
And in a dog-skin coat.”

The unheroic conclusion:

Стал Стенька Разин
Думати думу:
«Добро, воевода.
Возьми себе шубу.
Возьми себе шубу,
Да не было б шуму».

Stenka Razin started
To think his thoughts:
“All right, voivode,
Take the coat;
Take the coat
So there won’t be a fuss.”

The payoff comes in the penultimate chapter, when the old brigadier Potapov is describing being bullied by a security officer who tells him “Скажешь – простим. Нет – пеняй на себя.” [If you tell us, we’ll forgive you. If not, you have only yourself to blame.] This is a paraphrase of Pushkin’s “Отдашь, так спасибо; Не отдашь — повешу” [If you give it, then thanks; If you don’t, I’ll hang you], and the echo of the poem adds to the menace.

The first thing I read by Dombrovsky was his last story, «Ручка, ножка, огуречик» [An arm, a leg, a cucumber] — it happened to be in the January 1990 issue of Novy mir, which I bought in a library sale, and I guess I was attracted by the odd title (which is a variant of a children’s song: Точка, точка, запятая,/ Вышла рожица кривая./ Ручки, ножки, огуречик,/ Получился человечек! [A dot, a dot, a comma,/ There’s a funny face;/ Arms, legs, a cucumber: Now there’s a little man!]). It was absolutely horrifying, one of the scariest stories I’ve ever read (and it’s said to prefigure the author’s own violent fate), so it provided some extra wavelengths of intensity to my reading of the novel; eventually I’ll get to the sequel, Факультет ненужных вещей [The faculty of useless things, translated as The Faculty of Useless Knowledge], which is longer and (I gather) more explicit about the Terror, but that in no way diminishes the excellence of this one.


  1. A nitpick. “Надо же знать край!” in context probably means its usual “there must be a limit”. Previous phrase ends on “долго ли будет научной работой республиканского
    музея командовать отставной комбриг! Это же вам не дивизия все-таки, дорогие
    друзья, а наука.” / “how long will the scientific work of the Republican museum be under the direction of a retired Kombrig [major general]! This is not a division after all, my friends, it’s science.” Obviously, the problem is not that Kombrig doesn’t know the territory.

    ADDENDUM: In the unlikely event that some of this blog readers don’t know it, the story of Stenka Razin ended with a lot (add your preferred emphasis tag here) of fuss. Which obviously every reader of Pushkin is keenly aware of. So that “let there be no fuss” sounds pretty menacing. I don’t think that what the director of the museum meant, though.

  2. David Eddyshaw says

    I notice that the English Wikipedia page says he died from “varicose veins of the digestive system”, which isn’t really English; presumably it means “oesophageal varices” (warning: nasty pictures):

    I haven’t edited the actual page, on account of knowing nothing about Dombrovsky, so I’m guessing really.

  3. David Eddyshaw says

    (None of the pages in other languages I can read seems to mention it at all; only the assault by KGB thugs.)

  4. A nitpick. “Надо же знать край!” in context probably means its usual “there must be a limit”.

    Dammit, you’re right, of course — I had regionalism on the brain!

  5. Stu Clayton says

    A dot, a dot, a comma,
    There’s a funny face;
    Arms, legs, a cucumber:
    Now there’s a little man!

    Punkt, Komma, Strich –
    Fertig ist das Mondgesicht.

  6. presumably it means “oesophageal varices”

    Not sure why you’d presume it to be oesophageal varices as opposed to gastric varices or intestinal varices or colonic varices. Perhaps it was two or more of the above, in which case “varicose veins of the digestive system” seems a reasonable circumlocution.

    At any rate, it directly translates the footnoted sentence on the Russian page, so I’d be disinclined to change it.

  7. I was wondering, what would be the English equivalent of the Pushkin joke? Or is there one? ‘Who’s going to do it, Pushkin?’

    Край in the meaning of limit, end, is linked to a strong superstition that you shouldn’t use the word ‘last one’. Instead, one should say крайний, outside, on the edge, as when joining a queue.

  8. Точка, точка, запятая

  9. David Eddyshaw says

    Not sure why you’d presume it to be oesophageal varices as opposed to gastric varices or intestinal varices or colonic varices.

    Oesophageal varices are the commonest, because of the way the blood supply of the gastrointestinal system works; they are also notorious for being rapidly fatal at short notice. It is true that other kinds exist, though.

    In any case, “varicose veins” should be changed to “varices”; while, technically, they mean the same thing, “varicose veins” is basically never used for the gastrointestinal sort in English.

  10. David Marjanović says

    Punkt, Komma, Strich –
    Fertig ist das Mondgesicht.

    The version I know respects the meter by adding the second eye:

    Punkti, Punkti, Strichi, Strichi,
    fertig ist das Mondgesichti.

    Still doesn’t rhyme, though.

  11. AJP Crown says

    Trying to investigate what was scary, I found a 1994 film Ручка, ножка, огуречик… with a 3 min. introduction by Natalia someone, with an oddly shaped mouth. I may watch though I understand only one word in ten.

    The house of the merchant Shakhvorostov – now the consulate of France in Alma-Ata. Mr Gorbachev, tear down that wall.

  12. Trying to investigate what was scary

    It’s been translated as “Little Arm, Leg, Cucumber,” but it doesn’t seem to be available online, only in 50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories. (The Amazon page has “Look inside,” but I doubt you can read the whole story that way.)

  13. (And “Little Arm, Leg, Cucumber” is horrible — no rhythm, no sense that it’s part of a rhyme, “little” added to represent one diminutive but not the others, plurals changed to singulars for no apparent reason — what’s it all about, Alfie? Why not, say, “Arms and Legs and Little Pickle”? Obviously a pickle is not a cucumber, but precise meaning is not the point here, and “cucumber” is an impossible word to fit into a children’s rhyme.)

  14. AJP Crown says

    50 Writers: An Anthology of 20th Century Russian Short Stories

    – I think I might get that (I know nothing).

  15. David Marjanović says

    Obviously a pickle is not a cucumber

    Obviously it is, except in English 🙂

  16. Lars Mathiesen says

    There is a variant for Danish too (of course?) — Punktum, punktum, komma, streg, sådan tegnes Nikolaj. The only ‘authoritative’ text I can find is a horrid 8-stanza version by a 40’s music pedagogue, published in his book of children’s songs that is otherwise a classic.

  17. Obviously it is, except in English

    Heh. Point taken.

  18. I think I might get that

    It looks like an excellent selection.

  19. Trond Engen says

    Lars M.: Punktum, punktum, komma, streg, sådan tegnes Nikolaj

    Punktum, punktum, komma, strek,
    Det var hele [first name]’s lek.
    Halsen tynn og magen stor,
    slik kom [first name] til vår jord.

    I find it on the net in different folk forms, but this is how I remember my mother saying it. In my case, it scanned by saying Trond sin lek and Trond hit til vår jord.

  20. Lars Mathiesen says

    There are lots of Danish instances of halsen tynd og maven stor on Youtube and so on, but I don’t remember that from growing up myself. I assume Norwegian infiltration, an assumption preferable to having forgot.

  21. Amanda Adams says

    Try gherkin?

  22. I think “pickle” is better for a children’s rhyme. (“My mom gave me a nickel/ To buy a pickle…”)

  23. John Cowan says

    That reminds me of the traditional sign on the pickle jar that traditionally sat next to the cash register in a traditional New York Jewish deli: “Nim a nosh a nickel.”

    I first became aware of esophogeal varices as a teenager reading Intern by Doctor X (1965), who turned out to be the American sf writer Alan E. Nourse (indeed, the book sold better than any of his sf novels). It is a fictionalized memoir of his first year of residency in the bad old days of “off every other night and every other weekend”. In this case, he was called to see a patient with EVs who was having a bad bleed right then, but other than pouring blood into him there was no one around who knew what to do. There were also no beta blockers yet, so the only treatment was balloon catheterization.

    So it was the patient himself who instructed X in how to get the balloon into his stomach (just enough water to lubricate it, but not so much he would vomit), how to set and start the air pump, how to put the catheter on the traction apparatus (little more than a pulley hooked to an IV pole), and how to apply the traction weights, half a pound at a time because any faster than that and the patient couldn’t stand it, until the blood flow stopped. And there the patient was left until (by guesswork) the balloon was removed and the wait for the next bleed resumed. I don’t remember whether the patient eventually went home (perhaps X himself didn’t know).

  24. Heidi Wilson says

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  25. Glad you like it! But I’m afraid there is no “Follow” button; you have to add the URL to an RSS reader (I use Inoreader, but there are lots out there). Or just keep visiting; I post every day.

  26. Oh, and you can follow @languagehat as well — I tend to forget about it because I don’t use Twitter myself.

  27. The canonical way of following Language Hat is via the Commented-On Language Hat Posts page maintained by John Cowan, linked from the main site.

  28. John Cowan says

    That’s because almost every post gets comments and the comments are as interestinug as the posts, in general.

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