I was picking up another Russian novel when The Keeper of the Antiquities was calling to me.
And unlike most Russian novels, I didn't get confused with all the characters, because there were not many of them.
It's a quirky novel. The protagonist, an archaeologist from Moscow arrives by train to a hinterland city, Alma-Ata in Kazakhstan in 1933. He goes to work in a former cathedral, cataloging all sorts of broken pottery, animal remains, and other items and sleeps in another part of the cathedral. He occasionally writes articles for the local newspapers and is impatient when people from the nearby farming collective bring him items for the museum and expect a lot of recognition for detritus.
For the most part, nothing much happens in this novel, but there is an undercurrent of unease. The NVD (precursor of the KGB) is very active here. One needs to be careful of one's action.
The Keeper writes an article about some very valuable medieval books in the local library that are not shelved properly or appreciated. The librarian, Ayopova, throws a hissy fit, because the article makes her look like a bad administrator (which she really is) and wants the Director of the museum to sack the Keeper. She finds out who tipped off the Keeper about the books and has him sacked. However, the young man, another Moscow native, manages to get a work transfer permit and starts working at the museum, helping with archaeological digs.
The Keeper does keep a lot to himself, but when he allows himself to think, he is very lyrical. His first impressions of Alma-Ata are interesting. In one part, he saw, "a Russian peasant cottage, as brown and tough as a walnut..Clay adobe, weather-boarding, thatch. No dressed stone, no brick, hardly any new two story buildings and no old ones at all. Just a sleepy Cossack village at the turn of the century. Then suddenly a miracle happened. I crossed a street and found myself in a completely different town. Here the streets were wide, paved, the houses, multi-storied, colour-washed from top to bottom." He finds out a few minutes later that the city was designed by Pavolich Zenkov, who built the newer sections all earthquakes in the area, without any of the buildings falling down nor a window breaking.
The Keeper's boss, a former military man, worries a lot about the new leader of Germany, Hitler. He feels that a war will be coming soon. He imagines that the cellars of the museum will become "air-raid shelters and he was no longer a museum director but an officer in charge of a thousand men? Yet his wife, Valentina Seregeyevna was sound asleep in the next room, worrying about nothing...Our womenfolk slept soundly, trusting in us, in our male strength, our virture, our intelligence, our courage, and our ability to stop anything bad from happening in this world."
The Keeper keeps irritating more people and is trying to deciding what to do to stay out of more trouble. He walks through a wooded area, noticing nature: "The air had a special quality. The march exuded a thousand delicate aromatic smells that never merged with one another...here and there, like floating candles, shone rare water lilies."
I am not even sure when this book was published (the translation was done in 1969), but this article states that Dombrovskii was exiled to Alma-Ata in the 1930s. He might have based some of the Moscow characters in the novel on his fellow prisoners.
Look for this book in the library. It's hard to find on-line and in bookstores, since it's out of print. But, it's a treasure waiting to be discovered again. And, compared to most Russian novels, it's a short work for you to enjoy.