The Keeper of Antiquities is almost two books in one. One is the tale of the darkening shroud of Stalinism in 1937. The other is a love letter to Yuri Dombrovsky’s second home – Almaty. The two parts work together, however, in producing a coherent whole. Almaty’s portrayal as a wild, green, and bountiful city heightens the terror when contrasted with the deadly, dangerous games being played by its inhabitants. The first pages of the first chapter hardly have a soul in them. Instead the city itself is the hero. Dombrovsky uses great detail when describing his first impressions of the city,
“everything was in flower, even things which were not supposed to be – rotting fences, the walls of houses, roofs, ponds covered in yellow duck-weed…Gardens everywhere. One garden was even growing in the roadway…yellow tulips, red and blue poppies…”
The trees themselves get a fair share of the attention. A grove of Acacias become dancing girls, graceful and flowing. Dombrovsky is not alone in viewing them views them as the essence of the city,
“…the poplars. I learned later that they were the most important thing about that town. Without [poplars] you cannot even imagine Alma-Ata, nor begin to describe it.”
Overall the impression is of a green, warm, inviting place. A forest more than a city. He even recognizes a favorite tree from an decades-old picture,
“This photo showed a tree that was crooked, angular and awkward. But I knew that tree well. It is still standing there on the corner of Krasin Street and Gorky Street. Many were the encounters I had had under it, as it was a favorite meeting-place of mine. It was just the same black barked rustling giant as all its fellows which now stand guard along the streets of Alma-Ata.”
While this is going on, the main plot concerns the hero unwittingly, getting closer and closer to the trouble (arrests, killings, deportations) seeping out of Moscow in the summer of 1937. He has a knack for speaking his mind and pointing out absurdities, two skills which rile up people in authority. His friends and colleagues consider this a failure to understand the new rules. They bring it up to him constantly, viewing him as stubborn, childlike or just plain dense.
This all takes place in a lush garden, including a mountain collective farm (Gorny Gigant – now a McMansion and cottage filled neighborhood. Also full of delicious Uighur/Dungan food) and picnics by the Alma Atinka stream (seen above). Having escaped immediate danger, the final lines of the book bring us back to the nature of the surrounding landscapes, and leaves us with the thought of how nice it would be to spend a day in the mountains…