Ukrainian bees, Finland and Barcelona

My recent run of fiction reading that didn’t entirely satisfy continued this month – with one exception:

Andrey Kurkov, Grey Bees. MacLehose Press, translated from the Russian by Boris Dralyuk, 2021; first published in Russia, 2018 – this paperback edition provided by my local library. This was recommended to me by a friend; I wanted to add to my knowledge of literature about Ukraine.

Kurkov was born in Leningrad in 1961 but his family moved to Kyiv when he was two. Apart from being a prolific novelist, he has become a noted commentator on events in Ukraine. The novel tells the story of Sergey, a beekeeper who lives in the ‘grey zone’ in the Donbas – the area fought over by the Ukrainian army and the invading Russians (who also annexed Crimea in 2014) and pro-Russian separatist militias after the Euromaidan protest movement in 2013-14. Everyone in his village has fled the war except for his ‘frenemy’, Pashka, with whom he maintains a love-hate relationship. Their existence is frugal: there’s no power or mains services, food is scarce, and they live in constant danger of being shot by snipers or blown to pieces by random artillery fire. They hear the booms of explosions in the distance all the time.

In this dystopian setting a slightly surreal sequence of events unfolds. Sergey crawls across a dangerously exposed field to cover the corpse of a dead soldier. He doesn’t even know on whose side he fought, but can’t bear the thought of him lying unburied. This reveals his innate decency. He’s a low-key, self-deprecating example of sanity and humanity in a world that’s gone mad.

He lives almost entirely for his bees. His wife has left him, taking their daughter with her. He has an affair with a neighbouring village shopkeeper, but is reluctant to commit to another human being. His bees fulfil his emotional needs. They become a sort of symbol of the order – working for the common good of the hive – and normality that people in Ukraine have had taken from them.

Partly to avoid having to settle down and compromise his eremitic life, he heads south to the Crimea to look up an acquaintance he hasn’t seen in years. This expedition only leads to the discovery that things are just as bad, if not worse, in this peninsula on the Black Sea. The local Muslim population is oppressed by their aggressive invaders, and they are understandably suspicious of this outsider.

The novel’s title refers not just to Sergey’s bees in the battle-torn grey zone, but to the hive that he suspects has been tampered with by the Russian secret police when he comes to their attention in the Crimea. He believes this interference has somehow turned these bees grey – a metaphor perhaps for the pernicious, tainting effect of Putin’s invasion on everything Ukrainian with which they come into contact.

It’s a poignant, bittersweet narrative, told in subdued, undramatic prose that fits the unheroic Sergey’s stoical nature and the bizarre solitary life he favours. Sergey’s experience is related, as it were, in shades of grey in a world where most of the colour has been erased. It’s one of the most unusual and affecting novels about war (and, more particularly, the people caught up in it) that I’ve ever read.

I didn’t relish Tove Jansson, The Summer Book, Sort Of Books, 2022, first published in Swedish 1972 (TJ was a Swedish-speaking Finnish author), translated by Thomas Teal. I don’t know why: it’s quite charming in a way, and quirkily philosophical. A six-year-old girl lives on a tiny island in the Finnish archipelago with her family, spending most of her time with her rather grumpy but loving grandmother. In a loosely linked series of short stories, we hear about the girl’s hopes and fears, her tantrums and passions. I’ve read several accounts of this largely autobiographical novel that went into raptures, but I’m afraid I found it rather tedious.

The same goes for Mercè Rodoreda, In Diamond Square, Virago 2014, first published in Catalan 1962. As I’ve got to know Barcelona quite well in recent years since my stepson moved there with his family, I was drawn to this novel, set in that city, by one of the most revered Catalan authors of recent years. I was again disappointed. The first third tells of the marriage of Natalia to a coercively controlling, self-absorbed bully of a husband. When the civil war breaks out in 1936, he goes off to fight, and Natalia is left to struggle to earn enough to feed her young family.

The narrative should be compelling: Natalia learns resilience and finds she isn’t such a pushover after all. But I found this transformation unconvincing, and the mannered prose left me cold. It’s influenced, Rodoreda says in the prologue, by Dante, Kafka, Joyce and Homer – a claim justified by some of the breathless syntax, style and apparently inconsequential detail. I found all this intrusive, though, and Natalia’s simple innocence, reminiscent of Candide’s, didn’t make me want to see her overcome her difficulties.

I’m turning to some non-fiction to try and break this sequence of novels that I haven’t enjoyed as much as I’d have hoped. But I did warm to those harmonious, soothing bees.

Joan Sales, Uncertain Glory

Joan Sales (1912-83), Uncertain Glory. NYRB Classics, 2014. Translated by Peter Bush from the Catalan, first published 1956, revised and expanded several times thereafter.

Catalan writer Joan Sales began Uncertain Glory in 1948 in Barcelona after nine years of exile abroad. I read most of it in La Floresta, near Sant Cugat, just the other side of the mountain from that city this spring while visiting family there.

Sales drew upon his experiences of fighting in the Spanish Civil War (1936-39). He relates the struggle from the viewpoint of the losing, divided Republican side. Of course English-speaking readers are familiar with George Orwell’s slightly occluded version of his own experience of initial anarchist freedom in Catalunya followed by internecine hostility between the Republican factions (goaded in part by the Russian Communist commisars) and anarchic preparations of fighters like him in Barcelona during the war, and of the squalor and privations of the Aragon front, in Homage to Catalonia.

Joan Sales, Uncertain Glory cover

My copy of the novel lit by the Catalan sun near Barcelona

This is an epistolary account. It begins with the letters of Lieutenant Lluís, a lawyer before the war, to his brother Ramón. His partner Trini – a member of a fiercely anarchist family, and of forthright independent views herself — is bringing up their child in straitened circumstances in the Catalan capital, from food shortages to indiscriminate bombing and shelling by the approaching fascist forces. It’s a city of factions; the extremist Republicans hunt the priests who are seen to have colluded with Franco’s fascist insurrection against the democratically elected Republican government, while diehard Catholics, even those who oppose Franco, cling on to their old beliefs. Trini is moved to become baptised, despite her innate opposition to Catholicism, as a result of the murderous, vicious treatment of Catholic devotees by those she sympathises with politically.

Lluís hardly ever writes to her – causing her much distress. Instead he becomes infatuated with the carlana – the lady of the local Castel, whose Fascist sympathising husband was murdered by the Republican forces.

His letters reveal his slowly growing awareness that her interest in him is largely due to the influence he can exert on her behalf to protect herself and her own child from the unconstrained violence all around them.

Although there are harrowing descriptions of the atrocities committed on both sides, these are slightly less significant for the conflicted Lieutenant than his attempts to make moral sense of the chaotic world he finds himself in, and of his own emotional volatility.

Trini’s letters to their mutual friend, an eccentric cynic named Soleràs, form the second section. He provides solace and emotional support that Lluís is uninterested in providing. The third section consists of the letters of one of Lluís’s soldier comrades – a former seminarist, one of a number of colourful characters with whom Lluís serves.

If that all sounds a bit muddled, well, it is. But it’s hard not to be moved by the passions of the characters, mediated through their letters – not just political and philosophical passions, but sexual and religious.

This translation uses the expanded fourth edition of the Catalan novel, and in my view would have benefited from a less expansive treatment. The final set of letters in particular reprises much of what’s gone before, or offers little of greater interest than the first two parts. Quotations and allusions abound from Spinoza, Dostoevsky, Baudelaire and others, adding a portentous tone to the novel.

Lluís’s heartless treatment of Trini hardly endears him to the reader. She’s a much more interesting, rounded and mature character.

The ardour, suffering and inexperience of the Catalan Republican fighters are familiar from Orwell’s (and Hemingway’s) accounts, but Sales is able to give a more detailed, impassioned, insider’s portrayal. His insight into the betrayals, split loyalties and divided allegiances of those caught up in the struggle just about makes up for the over-long and repetitive digressions.

There’s an interesting interview with the translator, Peter Bush, at Lizzy’s Literary Life blog, posted in May this year.

Update 4 June: I forgot to mention the film version of the novel, with the Catalan title Incerta glòria, directed by Agustí Villaronga in 2017, available on Netflix (can’t comment on it as I haven’t seen it yet). Not to be confused with the 1944 Raoul Walsh film Uncertain Glory set in WWII.