sun 21/07/2024

Andrey Kurkov: Grey Bees review - light Ukrainian odyssey, with bite | reviews, news & interviews

Andrey Kurkov: Grey Bees review - light Ukrainian odyssey, with bite

Andrey Kurkov: Grey Bees review - light Ukrainian odyssey, with bite

Journey of a beekeeper lays bare the simultaneous severity and stupidity of conflict

Kurkov is Ukraine's most famous novelist as well as a journalist and commentatorJuerg Vollmer/Wikimedia Commons

This time, the Ukrainian author of Death and the Penguin, known for his brilliantly dark humour, has written a modern-day odyssey, with a return that is ambiguously hopeful.

Grey Bees follows a year in the life of Sergey Sergeyich, a retired and lonely beekeeper, keeping the fire burning with his sole neighbour, Pashka, in Little Starhorodivka, a village that sits uneasily inbetween two sides of an entrenched war. The first third of the book concerns Sergeyich's life in the village, before he loads up his ancient Lada (complete with Soviet numberplates) with provisions and beehives and sets off for a trip around Ukraine.

Set initially in the "grey zone" of the Donbas region, formally contested by Russia and Ukraine since 2014 (but historically for years before that), it is fitting that the only two occupied streets in Sergeyich’s bombed-out village are "Shevchenko" (poet, figurehead for Ukranian nationalism) and "Lenin" (father of Soviet Russia, statues torn down in Euromaidan), representing two sides in a multifaceted conflict. The signs are later arbitrarily changed by Sergeyich, underlining their ultimate meaninglessness. Symbols proliferate throughout the book, explored through abstraction in Sergeyich’s dreams. One of his beehives is marked by a soldier with shell-shock and is later found to contain a grenade. The church in Little Starhorodivka is razed by shelling and its candles lead to the arrest of a member of a Muslim family whom he tries to help. Kurkov writes lightly, however, and none of these portents are as embarrassingly obvious as they could be.

Both the severity and the stupidity of the various political games of tug of war in the region are clear throughout Grey Bees. Sergeyich passes through many different checkpoints whose occupants all have something to say about their country. He witnesses two politically fraught funerals, and himself buries a body at the bottom of his field. Behind these recent deaths are previous wars and grievances: Afghanistan, World War Two, and mass displacement under Stalin. The sense of nationhood and internal mistrust pervade the lives of all the characters he meets and come to infect one of his three precious hives. It is significant, however, that Sergeyich doesn’t attend the wake of a Ukranian soldier but does honour the death of a civilian whose nationality is not his own.

The sense of war’s futility extends to Sergeyich’s own life. He is ‘grey’ himself, after years of living in the grey zone – even his name sounds a little like the Russian and Ukranian words for that murky colour. He makes the big decision to leave Little Starhorodivka but his wanderings, though significant and symbolic, are peripatetic. He is brought into two families, but his own is remote. They represent other lives and other cultures that are either no longer, or cannot be his. Kurkov’s creation is perfect – a palimpsest, who seemingly emerges from each new interaction  essentially unchanged.

This seeming lack of action and change in Grey Bees allows Kurkov to explore the most important challenges that his native Ukraine is currently facing. He could have written Grey Bees bombastically, angrily, but, although terrible things happen, through Sergeyich’s eyes they can be considered, filtered, and examined with sympathy. This is not to say that the book doesn’t have teeth – an overt criticism of Putin and the treatment of Muslims in the Crimea is perhaps the most significant moment – but Kurkov writes in such a way that the reader, like Sergeyich, accepts both how banal and how terrible most conflicts become.


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