Relic of Jimi Hendrix in Ukraine

Andrey Kurkov, Jimi Hendrix Live in Lviv, translated from the Russian by Reuben Woolley; MacLehose Press, 2023. First published in Russian 2012.

A friend of mine lent me his copy of this novel by Andrey Kurkov; it was also on his recommendation that I read the same author’s Grey Bees, which I posted about recently.

Written with the same deadpan dryness of tone, it has an air of magical realism that resembles Bulgakov’s in The Master and Margarita: a central feature is the bizarre way one of the central characters, Taras, makes his living – he drives men suffering from painful kidney stones over bumpy cobbled Lviv streets, which makes the stones drop out. Taras retrieves them and adds them to his collection.

He’s loosely associated with the group of ageing hippies who gather at the start of the novel round the putative grave of the legendary musician Hendrix. Was the ex-KGB man who approaches them and tells them he was instrumental in arranging for one of the great guitarist’s hands to be transported to Ukraine and buried there in Lviv telling the truth? Rather like the cult surrounding saints’ relics, the ‘truth’ is less important than the faith they inspire in believers.

The other main character is Alik, who joins forces with the ex-KGB man to trace the origin of the ‘anomalies’ that are causing the weather to misbehave and the seagulls to become savage – elements of Hitchcock’s ‘The Birds’ seem to be referenced at times. When they find the cause, it’s one of the strangest parts of the plot.

There’s a tender love story involving Taras and a young woman who runs the all-night currency exchange booth where he takes the cash he’s earned from his (usually Polish) passengers. Her allergy to banknotes seems to be a metaphor for ‘dirty money’.

It’s an enjoyable novel, with some interesting insights into life in Ukraine shortly before the Russian annexation of Crimea and some eastern parts of the war-torn country, which was the setting for Grey Bees. Even though Jimi Hendrix is not set in wartime, the presence of the former KGB officer, who tells the hippie group that he used to spy on them as their adoration of the Western rock star was considered dangerously subversive by the Soviet regime, is a sinister reminder of Ukraine’s troubled past, its attempt to break free of Soviet domination, and to align itself with the culture of the West. The central image of Jimi Hendrix’s grave signifies the rebellious, anti-establishment ethos that these ageing Ukrainian hippies always subscribed to. There’s also a foreshadowing of the disastrous invasions that were to come, first in 2014 and then far worse last year.

I read recently that Ukrainian literature written in Russian has been banned from Ukrainian bookshops in protest against Putin’s current cruel military assault. I can understand the reason for this, but it’s a shame that the local people will therefore possibly miss out on Kurkov’s decidedly anti-Soviet satire. He was born in Soviet Russia, and Russian is his first language, but he’s lived in Ukraine much of his life.

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.