In about 2014, my reading life changed with the establishment of Dallas’s Deep Vellum Publishing, a publisher at the time dedicated to literature in translation. They’ve since branched out, drawing in smaller imprints and recently buying the legendary catalog Dalkey Archive. But for me, they’ll always be a go-to place to read the world. As they were for me this week, when I read Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees.
Kurkov’s Sergey Sergeyich lives in Little Starhorodivka, a village in Ukraine’s grey zone, a region caught between loyalists & separatists. It’s a lonely village reduced to two inhabitants, Sergey a retired mine inspector & beekeeper, and Pashka his lifelong frenemy also retired. They visit each other out of boredom & necessity, eventually even deepening something of neighborly affection & concern for one another. The frequent shelling in & around the village, however, mean that Sergey must leave — not for his own safety primarily, but for that of his bees.
His journey to let his bees take wing draws you into the variety of the region & its people, and into the depths of Sergey’s emotions. The wartime checkpoints & worries, bureaucratic absurdities & cruelties had me on edge a lot — soldiers & militia, governors & petty officials alike wield the kind of control over Sergey & his fate, his friends & his bees, that make for apt comparisons to Vonnegut, Kafka, Bulgakov, and Beckett.
Relationships with women complicate & nurture this journey throughout. One that turns erotic, others that turn familial, and still others that were once familial & strained … Sergey isn’t the bravest or clearest heart you’ll read but he is one of the realest, needing nudges from women to love & to feel & to sacrifice when it’s needed most (for himself & for others & for his bees).
Oh, and the bees.
Don’t worry — Kurkov leans on the apiary just enough. In hands-on maintenance & in nightmarish visions, in liter-by-liter accounts of production and in (quick) allegorical meditations on belonging & endurance, rebirth & sweetness.