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.

Anja Snellman, Continents. #WITMonth

Anja Snellman, Continents: A Love Story. New Terrain Press, 2018. Translated from the Finnish by Timo Luhtanen. 20051 #WITMonth

#WITMonth logoI was sent this novel via fellow blogger Liz Dexter’s site ‘Adventures in reading, running and working from home’ as a giveaway from the publisher for responding to her review: my thanks to Liz and New Terrain for introducing me to this author. It’s also my first contribution to #WomenInTranslation Month (aka #WITMonth), curated annually by Meytal Radzinski at the Bibliobio blog.

According to Anja Snellman’s website she’s been a writer for nearly forty years, and has published 25 novels which have been translated into twenty languages. Her first novel, Sonia O. Was Here, remains the highest-selling Finnish debut so far.

The basic theme of Continents is simple; Oona and Alex are at first passionately in love; they’ve started their map life together, as Oona sees it, on the continent of Asia:

Their Asia was pure enchantment – it lasted for their first summer and the following one, if not longer. That first summer, they were busy making their first child on the smooth cliff by his grandmother’s villa.

Snellman Continents coverOona sees yellow for days afterwards, a sort of poetic afterburn from the sunshine in those idyllic times. That perhaps gives a flavour of Snellman’s method: a generic portrait in geographical images, locations, sensations, of the stages of a relationship (‘every couple has their Asia’ – usually but not necessarily at the start of their relationship), with highly personal details and poetic analogies and images from the daily lives and experience of this particular couple to animate it.

Here’s a typically sensuous account of life in steamy ‘Asia’:

Touches set off tremors of excitement and pleasure, and skin glows and smells of water lilies…In Asia, couples burn candles and incense, and write random lists about things they have in common. …They keep misplacing their keys and watches, forget the pizza box on the roof of the car, and accidentally lock the cat in the wardrobe.

I enjoy the way Anja Snellman conveys the delirious excitement of this erotically charged, blissful and intimate stage of a marriage, while showing it grounded in the humdrum and everyday. Their passionate intensity and mutual absorption is even slightly comical when described from the outside like that. That’s well observed.

Oona is very like the protagonist of her cartoon strips (she’s an artist-illustrator), a ‘quirky hippy girl’ called Rainbow. Alex, a journalist in ‘real’ life, is represented by her cartoon boyfriend, Scoop – also a writer.

Ominous signs are apparent even from the start. When Alex asks why Rainbow holds a daisy while Scoop has a pen behind his ear, and whether this brings them together or drives them apart, Oona answers honestly that she doesn’t know:

She thought he might not yet understand the combination of uninhibited and sad, bold and ambiguous, and blatant and shy, but he would learn.

Would he really? Alex is representative of a certain common type of man (I’m allowed to say that, being male): kind, generous but lacking in insight into himself and others, short of empathy. He’s quick to get jealous when Oona’s ex-boyfriends are discussed. He doesn’t share Oona’s generous, intuitive abandon, her untidy joie de vivre:

She lights up his life. When they get to the continent of Africa, Alex begins to wonder if her light is too bright.

Australia is remembered by Oona as ‘remote, with a peculiar outline and long distances, and not particularly attractive at first.’ But it was also a time of happiness, even though ‘the scent of a man was often replaced by that of a baby, and she had trouble sleeping for different reasons than before.’ More warning signs appear starkly: ‘isolation looms in Australia, so couples need to find ways to connect with the rest of the world.’

There’s that portentous, omniscient narrative voice, anatomising the situation while presenting the particulars: they think about making love, ‘with abandon, for hours’, but then they ‘yawned and shrugged, and the idea was left hibernating, or perhaps smoldering.’

Another good, salutary joke.

Anyone who’s been in a long relationship will recognise with a frisson this occasionally comical, deadly serious way of charting the stages of a relationship, in this case a marriage. Can passion survive parenthood, domesticity, promotions and pressures of work and career, rivalries and tensions in the dynamic between the two partners? It’s an ancient question, and Snellman doesn’t shirk exploring their resolutions, as this couple ‘slip, slide and slither’ through the continents to the icy wastes of Greenland and Antarctica.

Thanks again to Liz and New Terrain Press – an imprint that specialises in translations of Nordic works of literature – for introducing me to this bright literary voice. I agree with Liz, who says in her review that it’s ‘impeccably translated’, and skewers the achingly cool social circle of this couple unerringly. They just don’t do emotion and love too well. Still, who does?

Turns out, Oona does.

I hope to post a French-Canadian #WITMonth contribution next. Thanks again to Liz and Bibliobio for the nudge into – no, inspiration for – reading more women writers in translation, and my first ever Finnish novel.