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    Keeping Bees in Wartime Ukraine

    Grey Bees is a stunning representation of an uncomplicated person’s experience of constant war.

    By Margaret R. Ellsberg

    August 8, 2023

    A review of Grey Bees, by Andrey Kurkov, translated by Boris Dralyuk.

    The Ukrainian beekeeper weeps while eating a bowl of borscht which reminds him of his estranged wife. We might think that eating a slow-cooked, well-spiced, fragrant borscht would move him to tears of gratitude, because now, around 2016 or so, well into the semi-permanent war, he has eaten nothing but buckwheat and noodles for three years. But as it happens, throughout the 315 pages of the novel, Sergey Sergeyich usually cries when he thinks of his wife, Vitalina. As in a nineteenth-century novel of marriage, Kurkov plants suggestions that Vitalina would like to reconcile with the beekeeper. And like Jane Austen, Kurkov attenuates the suspense, until and beyond the ending.

    The village of Little Starhorodivka has been evacuated, or rather, abandoned. Only the beekeeper and his old schoolmate, Pashka, remain. They disliked each other as children. Boris Dralyuk, the dexterous translator, calls them “frenemies.” Yet, as the narrative unfolds, we find Sergey and Pashka growing ever closer. By the last page of the book – and this is not a spoiler – as they anticipate their reunion after Sergey has taken a summer road trip, Pashka rings him on his mobile. “Could you buy me some smokes?” Pashka asks. Sergey assents. “’OK, then, keep driving. I’ll be waiting.’ Well, at least someone’s waiting for me, Sergeyich thought, pressing the accelerator.” Meanwhile, since the other neighbors have all departed, the paint has worn off the weathered houses of the empty village, which sits within “the grey zone.” Everything has turned monochrome. The grey zone is neither here nor there, neither black nor white. The grey zone is a Nowheresville identifiable only by the names of tiny towns. It crouches, wedged between Ukrainian and pro-Russian Separatist combatants. Across this amorphous landscape, unidentified soldiers shoot, you might say, aimlessly.

    Kurkov is Ukraine’s most distinguished and successful fiction writer. In his foreword he writes:

    I have taken three journeys through Donbas, the eastern region that contains Donetsk, Luhansk and the grey zone. There I witnessed the population’s fear of war and possible death gradually transform into apathy. I saw war becoming the norm, saw people trying to ignore it, learning to live with it as if it were a rowdy, drunken neighbour. This all made such a deep impression on me that I decided to write a novel.

    At one point, the narrator refers to Sergey’s “calm and harmless” life. Donbas is a land of coalmines. Sergey is a disabled and thus retired coalmine inspector, afflicted, like many coalminers, with silicosis of the lung. The story describes the beekeeper’s placid, innocent life in and around his cottage, his garden, his orchard, and six beehives. On the first page of the story, Sergey puts on his sheepskin coat and trudges out to the shed to get coal for his stove. Cannons blast from opposite directions. “Then he returned to the dark interior of the house and lit a candle. Its warm, pleasant, honeyed scent hit his nose, and his ears were soothed by the familiar quiet ticking of the alarm clock on the narrow wooden windowsill.” It is winter, and “the master of the house” stays close to his homemade potbelly stove, the prototype of which he saw in the publication Cosy Cottage. His ticking alarm clock provides a small percussive memento of existential emptiness. If he remembers to wind it, he will not lose track of the hours. This feels important to him, and opens a coded discourse about timelessness in the grey zone. Sergey spends much of the book sleeping – getting under the covers or into his sleeping bag, falling asleep, waking in the night to add coal to the stove, getting up in the morning. Like all of us, he dreams. I usually find the recounting of dreams in poems or fiction exasperating, but Kurkov faithfully records the beekeeper’s dreams from beginning to end of the novel, and they form a web with Sergey’s waking life. They also offer us vivid interludes from a consciousness otherwise characterized by reticence and, well, greyness. Sergey tells himself, toward the end of the book, that “It’s through dreams that God tells us what to do.” On this point, he agrees completely with Carl Jung.

    The season – meteorological and emotional – begins at dusk under a wintry sky. Against an unchanging soundscape of detonating explosives, in a story which will also come to hear music in the soothing hum of bees, Sergey pursues a diminished life, one without electricity or groceries or work or a church. Readers have compared Kurkov to Kafka. Personally, I find Turgenev in many of the novel’s moments of gentle goodness. Mostly, though, I associate Sergey and his accidental companion with the two guys in Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot (1953). In Beckett’s play, foundational to the Theater of the Absurd, Estragon and Vladimir wait for something which never materializes – at least, not yet. Absurdist fiction probes the insignificance of human endeavor in a meaningless universe. In fact, the greyness of Sergey’s zone and of the winter sky over Ukraine conjures the rampant dysthymia that inevitably dogs the wake of war. As a species of relief, though not comic relief, references to old-fashioned rural rituals and to the village Orthodox church which has since been reduced to rubble occasionally brighten the beekeeper’s days. Like a story by Nicolai Gogol, Grey Bees is filled with agricultural appurtenances: every cottage in the village has a yard, a garden, and an orchard. After the destruction of the little church, Sergey salvages two cartons of beeswax candles, made from wax that he and his bees donated, which accompany him, significantly, throughout the novel. He refers to the holy candles as “a gift from the Lord.”

    Early in the book, we meet a corpse, whose presence hovers for hundreds of pages. Is he ours? Is he theirs? Sergey and Pashka spot him through binoculars, just beyond the beekeeper’s orchard. Wearing a gold earring, his frozen backpack filled with Christmas candy for the children of the next village, he inspires us to remember Saint Nicholas, who appears on a cardboard icon which accompanies Sergey on the odyssey which narrative convention will soon require him to undertake. The dead man lies there, snow falling heavily. One night, the beekeeper ventures out past the frozen yard and, with a shovel, covers the corpse with a blanket of fresh snow. Soon after, Sergey delivers the Christmas candy to the children of the next village. There follows the first of many touching scenes of community and hospitality: the old woman Nastasya offers him lavish food sharing from her own kitchen, and couch surfing. He gives her two liters of honey in exchange for twenty-two fresh eggs.

    Strangers knock randomly on the beekeeper’s door, mostly in the middle of the night. They come in, leave their snow boots in the corner, sit down for tea and honey. One reoccurring visitor is an armed soldier who refuses to lay down his rifle. Yet Sergey does not seem afraid:

    But the war had not made Sergeyich fear for his life. It had only made him confused, and indifferent to everything around him. It was as if he had lost all feeling, all the senses, except for one: his sense of responsibility … focused entirely on the one object: his bees.

    The bees’ daily labor is modest but, as we ourselves are learning, ecologically indispensable. They work all day collecting pollen, returning each evening to their hives. They listen to Sergey’s voice and seem to understand his words. He commands them to enter their hives, and they do. He explains to a visitor that each bee has its own little bed. One morning during his camping trip, Sergey awakens, after sleeping out under the open stars, to find a bee described as “tired,” asleep astride the beekeeper’s nose. They enjoy an intimate moment before he gently removes the bee. His intense affiliation with his six buzzing hives supplies the strongest index of his moral character. His love of his bees is his gospel.

    colorful beehives in a forest

    Photograph by Pavlo Klymenko

    In his wildly successful earlier novel Death and the Penguin (1996), Kurkov’s otherwise bland hero, Viktor, responds to a call from the zoo in Kyiv. The zoo can no longer finance its only mission, and offers a free animal to anyone who can afford to feed it. Viktor, a journalist who writes obituaries, goes to the zoo and comes back home to his empty apartment with a king penguin named Misha, who “plip-plops” around the apartment. Misha enjoys soaking in a bathtub filled with cold water, and eats frozen fish from the supermarket. Misha also endows Viktor with a reader-pleasing charm that he could have elicited in no other way. And so with Sergey and his bees. He loves the animals entrusted to his care.

    Sergey belongs to a regional beekeeping society. Once, at a bee conference, he shared a room with a fellow beekeeper named Ahktem, a Muslim Tatar from Crimea. As this rather uneventful story plip-plops along, he thinks of Ahktem. With spring approaching Little Starhorodivka, and the bees awakening from hibernation, Sergey decides that he must take them on a vacation, away from the noise of shelling. His acquaintance with Ahktem provides him with the occasion to travel in his old green car, dragging a trailer for the hives, to Crimea. Also, narrative theory requires that the hero, however meek and mild, must undertake a journey. If the hero is female, the journey will almost certainly require her to get married and establish a safe domestic space, after some (usually three) bumps in the road. If male, a picaresque plot will ensue; the beekeeper will indeed travel to Crimea, but Sergey’s “journey” truly began when his Vitalina left him:

    His wife and daughter had run off while he was out at the wholesale produce market in Horlivka. They had left a wound in his heart. But he persevered. He gathered all his will into a fist and didn’t let the tears that had welled up in his eyes roll down his cheeks.… In the summers he enjoyed the buzzing of the bees, and in the winters the peace and quiet, the snowy whiteness.

    Like Odysseus, he will travel far and encounter ordeals. And like Penelope, Vitalina waits for him. Driving away from the grey zone, the beekeeper leaves Waiting for Godot behind and visits Edenic settings – tent-camping among exotic fruit trees, lush apricots, and fields of sunflowers for the bees. At his first stop, a girl named Galya tempts him. An excellent cook, and low maintenance, she invites him to leave his tent and live with her. He instead moves on and camps in another paradise in Crimea, where he becomes involved with Ahktem’s family. Vitalina reenters the story, and in a good way. The reader begins to imagine a reconciliation – but that would be the female plot.

    On day eighty-nine of his ninety-day visitor’s visa, Odysseus returns home to Little Starhorodivka. 

    The narrative does not end, in the usual sense. Odysseus in the form of a disabled coalminer undertakes a journey, spending the summer camping in the woods alone with his bees and his icon of Saint Nicholas. Thanks to Galya at his first campsite and to Ahktem’s wife while camping in Crimea, he eats well, the cuisine described in detail. He trades his honey for tea and vodka. And then, for about twenty pages, Sergey undergoes an implied near-death experience (which in narrative practice can substitute for “the narrow escape event”): he develops Left Arm Syndrome, in which the middle-aged, out-of-shape hero experiences fatigue, weakness, and complete numbness in his left arm. The reader, who has become devoted to the harmless beekeeper, begins to fear that he will die of a heart attack before the end of the book! The Crimean village near which he is camping has a hospital, but Sergey chooses to try nature’s way instead. He creates a bed by stacking his beehives, and sleeps on top of it. He awakens refreshed and cured. The bees, like Saint Nicholas, perform a miracle.

    The war, an inescapable manifestation, emerges now and then even as the bees apparently enjoy their holiday abroad: Kurkov vividly portrays the funeral wake of a fallen Ukrainian soldier, attended by every person in the village; a young soldier driven mad by shellshock smashes all the windows in the beekeeper’s car; insane bureaucracies of police and secret service wreak a scattershot of minor havocs on the traveling beekeeper.

    On day eighty-nine of his ninety-day visitor’s visa, Odysseus returns home to Little Starhorodivka. Baptist missionaries will soon deliver free coal to help the two local holdouts, Sergey and Pashka, through the coming winter, and the beekeeper does not want to miss that delivery. Vitalina has invited him, twice or maybe thrice, to rejoin her and their daughter. That, presumably, remains on the table. Meanwhile his only neighbor, Pashka, awaits him, and for the foreseeable future the two frenemies will resume waiting for Godot.

    Contributed By MargaretEllsberg Margaret R. Ellsberg

    Margaret “Peggy” Ellsberg (PhD, Harvard University) teaches English at Barnard College.

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