Review: Grey Bees by Andrey Kurkov, Maclehose Press 2020

(First published in Russian by Folio, Moscow, in 2018). Translated by Boris Dralyuk.

This unusual and delightful novel by Kurkov, a Russian-born Ukrainian, follows many others. He is probably best known in Britain for his satirical novel Death and the Penguin. All of them are humorous but with a hard edge. Grey Bees, which is of course not about bees, is not particularly funny. It is very human, sad and very readable indeed.

This is the story of Sergeyich, beekeeper and retired coal mine inspector. He suffers from lung disease after years down in the Donbas mines. In keeping with theme of the BEARR Trust’s small grants scheme in 2021, it is a story of extreme social isolation of an unusual kind. Sergeyich lives in a Donbas village on the ‘line of contact’ or frontline, known as the ‘grey zone’, and apart from him only one other inhabitant has remained in the village. All the rest, including Sergeyich’s ex-wife and daughter, have fled, in their case to western Ukraine. The final straw for many was the destruction of the village church by bombs, which continue to explode almost daily. Sniper fire is another hazard. There is no electricity anymore, so Sergeyich spends his winter evenings by candlelight (courtesy of the missing church), cannot charge his mobile phone and thus remains incommunicado, apart from resident no.2, Pashka, who lives a few streets away, and whom he has not liked since their schooldays, and thinks may be collaborating with the other side. The war rumbles on around him, sometimes very close indeed.

Sergeyich will not abandon his bees, however, and somehow survives, on pickles and potatoes and whatever he can grow in the summer…and of course honey. He has been in the habit of taking his bees for a summer holiday to Crimea, where the temperate climate, unlike the severe continental conditions of eastern Ukraine, allows a fabulous range of flowers and blossom to grow. In his old car, almost never used so as to conserve what little fuel he has, with its trailer-load of beehives, he crosses various military checkpoints arousing little interest apart from curiosity. After a stop along the way (cue minor romantic interest in the form of Galya, a local grocery store owner with whom he trades honey for provisions), he reaches Crimea, where he has the phone number of Akhtem, a Crimean Tatar he once met at a beekeepers’ gathering. He finds the family of his contact but his friend has disappeared since Russia annexed the region, as have numerous Tatars, either for pro-Ukrainian or Tatar activism or for nothing at all.

Early this year I watched an on-line discussion about the book with Kurkov and his excellent translator Boris Dralyuk. Kurkov had visited the Donbas several times while writing the book. One topic that came up in the Q&A was whether ‘sleeping with bees’ is really a thing. Apparently, it is. (Sergeyich used to allow a local bigwig to lie on top of the beehives for therapeutic reasons, and in recompense was given his enormous luminous shoes which he had admired.) Seemingly the vibrations of thousands of tiny wings have beneficial effects on all kinds of ailments and mental disturbance.

This isn’t a book about war. It’s a book about people and how war and political repression affects them. Neither Sergeyich or the author postulates at length about Russia’s annexation of Crimea and military intervention in the Donbas, but we see how small communities and families have been devastated. I really enjoyed it. I shall leave it to readers to find out why the bees are grey.

Janet Gunn, BEARR Trustee

August 2021 

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