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.

Rome visit 1: a beautiful mosaic

We returned on Monday from a five-day visit to Rome – our first holiday abroad (apart from visiting family in Spain) since the pandemic began. We loved the city, and in particular the overlaps seen everywhere between sites and artefacts of different periods of history: step off a busy modern shopping street and stumble upon a first-century theatre or temple.

One of the most interesting examples of this layering of history is seen in the basilica of San Clemente, just a few hundred meters from the marvels (and tourist crowds) of the Colosseum. Friends had recommended a visit, and we’re so pleased we did. There are hundreds of beautiful churches in the city; there seems to be one on every corner (or tucked in the middle of an otherwise unassuming block). This one stands out.

St Clement lived towards the end of the first century; he was the third Pope, and is said to have been consecrated by St Peter. During the emperor Trajan’s anti-Christian persecution he was exiled to Chersonesus (near modern besieged Kherson) in the Crimea, and put to work in a quarry. Legend has it that he angered his captors by ministering to his fellow prisoners (and performing miracles). He was martyred by being tied to an anchor and thrown into the Black Sea.

St Cyril, a scholar born in Thessalonika, who developed the glagolithic alphabet (later adapted into the Cyrillic one), and translated the gospels as part of his mission to evangelise the Slavic peoples, found Clement’s relics (and the supposed anchor to which he’d been tied) and had some of them brought to Rome in about 867. They are still preserved in a shrine beneath the basilica’s high altar. St Cyril’s own relics are also preserved in this basilica, along with those of his brother and fellow author, theologian and missionary, Methodius.

A relic of Clement’s head was claimed by a cave monastery at Kiev. It’s sobering to think of these events as Ukraine suffers now at the hands of the same Russians who plundered and destroyed much of their Christian heritage over the centuries (and rewrote their history), and in particular under the Soviet regime of the 1920s-30s.

The existing building dates from about 1100, with 17C alterations. What’s fascinating is that it stands on a subterranean layer of earlier structures. Just beneath is a 4C church, converted from an earlier Roman nobleman’s villa. Underneath this is an even earlier space that had been used as a mithraeum – an altar and temple for rituals in honour of the Roman god (adapted from Persian practice) Mithras. From the 1C this area would have been used for clandestine Christian worship when this was still forbidden by the Roman authorities.

You have to book online to see these lower levels and their famous 11C frescos; unfortunately we weren’t able to do so when we were there – but it’s easy to find out about them (and find interesting images) online.

But it’s worth visiting just for the medieval basilica at street level. It’s stunningly beautiful. You enter through a nondescript door in a plain façade into a charming cloistered open courtyard, once used by the Irish Dominican monks who took over administration of the basilica in the 17C when they fled Protestant persecution in their homeland (see the pattern emerging here?)

San Clemente apse mosaic

Source Wikimedia Commons, licence CC-BY-SA 3.0; my own pictures weren’t very good

Apart from the sumptuously decorated ceilings and walls (with some lovely 15C frescos by Masolino in the chapel of St Catherine), the eye is drawn most to the gorgeous 12C mosaics and wall paintings in the apse.

The central image is of a vine growing out of a tree surmounted by a crucifixion scene. Figures of Mary, Jesus’ mother, and John stand beside the cross. Twelve doves (perhaps symbolising the apostles, as well as peace) perch on the cross. Paradise is represented, but also the earthly church and its people.

Various figures appear in the curved, gilded mosaic: various saints and prophets, but also, charmingly, peasants sowing seeds being eaten by birds, and others with their livestock and fowl. Two stags drink from the rivers flowing from Eden – an allusion to the opening line of Psalm 42.

Beneath these images stands a row of twelve sheep, representing the apostles, all facing the agnus dei in their centre. At each side are symbolic representations of Bethlehem and Jerusalem. On the walls beneath the apsidal dome stand figures of the apostles in human form.

The style and iconography are a mix of Byzantine and western tropes – a fitting blend for this city of historical congruences, cultural influences and historical layers.

More images and details of this mosaic can be found at this site.