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.

The world is merciless if you expose yourself to it: Michael Flay, ‘The Dancer’

I’ve written recently about the first two stories in Michael Flay’s 1999 collection Closed Doors; today I’d like to consider a story with a different theme and tone.

Flay Closed Doors Many of the stories in this collection are baleful protests at the consumerist culture of modern society: the fat-cat ‘businessmen’ who often appear are excoriated for their banal, depraved practices, their cultural blankness and their selfish, gloating boorishness. Their sense of superiority is repulsive, and the author’s rancour is corrosive. Male-female relations are just another form of commerce in this bleak world.

I’d like to look, by way of contrast, at some softer touches the author is capable of. In ‘The Dancer’ there’s a poignant love story, delicately conveyed. It’s one of a few stories set in Finland, where Michael Flay taught for a while back in the 90s – hence his imprint’s name: Polar Books.

The eponymous Finnish woman dancer is gifted and the unnamed male (English) protagonist is attracted, as this striking image indicates:

She was liquid, and he would like her to pour over him.

When she dances she can both express and lose herself – qualities he admires and perhaps envies:

In this she could be herself, beyond relationship for the time…[Later] She had revealed herself quite barely in the dance; there was something brave, insolent in the revelation.

The relationship is strained, however, largely because of the exigencies of their economic situations, the ‘systems’: both need to work at jobs that are deadening, unfulfilling – in his case, teaching at an institution that exploits its staff with contemptuous disdain; each day is ‘trivial’; the work ‘was taking him down’.

There’s a bleak, unforgiving polar setting (the words ‘ice’ and ‘snow’ are repeated frequently, along with related terms – ‘frozen’, ‘cold’, adjectives ‘desolate’, ‘black’, ‘dead’, sterile’, etc.) In spite of this, the man and the dancer had ‘come close’:

He had wanted to draw her into his conscious world, had tried also to show her himself. And she had almost seen, had wanted to see, but had not wanted to show herself so much.

Here the pervasive influence in all of Michael Flay’s work of his literary model – DH Lawrence –  is apparent, but he adapts the imagery to make it his own.

The man is forced to return to England to seek more temporary work (no permanent contracts in his academic world), and again the scene reflects the emotional temperature of the characters:

A grey drizzle fell across the dirty London sky…It was all [the ‘council estate’ with its boarded-up houses] nauseous and forlorn.

He’s surrounded by the more privileged, the ‘cash complacent’, drawling, refined ‘businessmen’ so often reviled, as I have shown, in these stories – ‘how had they come to run things?’, the man muses, disillusioned, as they scurry to their ‘bank blocks’ (a favourite Flay term). He lacks their commercial drive. But here the venomous portrayal serves as a counterpoint to the ‘tenderness’ between him and the dancer.

Their separation is bruising; the estranging world is ‘merciless if you expose yourself to it.’ Why should he, the man thinks, ‘dent her defences for the outside to come in?’ I find those images beautifully done.

I won’t reveal the outcome; it’s the tender depiction of the ‘contact’ these two otherwise thwarted, disconsolate, constrained characters are able to establish in a harsh, uncaring world that gives this story its lustre.

I’m off on holiday tomorrow, so may not get a chance to post here for a while. Have a good summer, and happy reading, happy living.