Thursday, September 22, 2022

Grey Bees


Grey Bees / Andrey Kurkov
translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk
Dallas, TX: Deep Vellum, 2022, c2020
320 p.

I'm still busily reading books by Ukrainians and about Ukraine. This novel is the latest from well known Ukrainian writer Andrey Kurkov. I've read a few of his earlier novels, and found this one more somber and less fantastical than earlier reads. It's also a bit longer; it deals with serious issues in a more straightforward way. 

Sergey is a middle-aged beekeeper who lives in the Grey Zone, the area in the Donbas that has been occupied by Russians since 2014. His village now consists of Sergey and his childhood frenemy as the only remaining citizens. Their interactions reveal the presence of both Russian and Ukrainian troops on both sides. But as summer draws near, Sergey wants to take his bees to a location where the guns and skirmishes won't bother them as they gather their honey. So he packs the hives into his old car, and heads into Ukraine proper to find a flowery spot to settle for the season. 

First he stops in a small town and camps in a field, befriending the local shopkeeper. But his relationship with her upsets the men in the town, particularly a former combatant with some PTSD. So he moves on, and ends up in Crimea. 

This section is quite startling - it evokes a lush, beautiful landscape full of menace due to Russian invaders. His developing relationship with the family of a beekeeper he once knew (who has disappeared in one of the roundups of Crimean Tatars by the Russians) reveal the history of the area over the years of Russian occupation. It's stark and yet told in a gentle way; Sergey is a bit of a charmed man, simple and not very suspicious although alarms are always going off for the reader. 

The contrast between Sergey's stoic manner and the danger we as readers can sense really makes the book work. When he is pushed to leave Crimea, a group of local police take one of his hives in the night, and when it's returned he must pack up and head home to his village in the Grey Zone -- but there is something odd happening with the hive that was 'borrowed', and though it isn't explicitly stated, Sergey seems to finally wake up to the potential of danger and sabotage, and to the necessity to act in the face of oppression. 

It's a longer and slower read than some of his earlier work, but still has flashes of his trademark satire. It's a darker and more contemporary theme, however, and so feels more serious. Definitely worth a read.

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