Only bees are the thing

Andrii Kurkov. Gray Bees

Funny, stripped yellow-and-black cartoon bees lose color and turn gray when dying. This is what Serhiyovych, the protagonist of Andrii Kurkov’s novel Gray Bees, will say. He is a beekeeper, he can be trusted.

Serhiyovych lives in the “gray zone” (a transparent metaphor). Just two people live in a half-destroyed Donetsk village now – in darkness and relative solitude. The village is located in the demarcation zone, influenced by the DPR and Ukrainian army. In the neighboring village, ten kilometers away, everything seems better: they have electricity and shelling is not so frequent, the shops work and the children run on the streets. Here, in Mala Starohradivka, it’s different. Once a year, the Baptists come and bring coal for winter, once a year Ukrposhta comes, more often the visits are paid by the Ukrainian soldiers and “defenders” from that side which mustn’t be recognized as Russian. Ukrainians come to Serhiyovych, separatists to Pashka. In the abandoned village there are only two people who wage a fierce military and ideological and political conflict.

And so they live – eat monotonous miserable food, honey which Serhiyovych preserved while his bees are sleeping in the garage in five hives, they drink vodka, get distorted news which hardly reaches their place, they are more tired of war than afraid of it, they see dreams about peaceful life. The fuel is quite bad but this car stands still.

The spring comes and the bees must be let out. They are afraid of shelling and fly away, so Serhiyovych loads the hives in the car and goes to look for free pastures. The first destination becomes the Zaporizhia region. Here, the beekeeper is expected to have a non-passionate romance with a local seller and a very passionate attack of the shell-shocked ATO militant. Then he goes to Crimea. Here he lives among Tatars who have enough problems without him. The question, whether to return to winter in Donbas or somewhere else in Ukraine, is open and in fact, is the only meaningful thing about the plot.

Kurkov throws into his slow novel a bunch of facts and details which could keep the plot going. But it isn’t going. Serhiyovych and his ex-wife have a daughter, called Angelica (the parents fought over this). How to live in a small village with this name? – Think about it for yourself. A soldier gives the beekeeper a grenade which he, being drunk, hides somewhere. Where? – It will be told. Will it have any sense? – No. But the story with bees which were recruited by the Russian special service could have been unfolded more as it is given sparingly. (Russians in Crimea took one of the hives for checking and when they returned it all bees were gray and they weren’t accepted in other hives. Serhiyovych destroyed them at the end of the novel. A transparent tale with a clear morality). What happened to the Ukrainian soldier who came to Serhiyovych? What will happen to a Tatar girl whom the beekeeper brought to Ukraine for studying? Who was actually that killed Ukrainian volunteer whom the beekeeper buried him in a nearby field? What did the Russian sniper do whose location was revealed with help of Serhiyovych? Petro came to him, they talked warm-heartedly and he went. “As if an interesting TV show have watched,” Serhiyovych summed up the visit. This walking “TVs” don’t move the plot.

In fact, such slowdowns of the plot make a strong impression – here, in this novel (we do not recommend reproducing the experiment under other conditions). They turn any deed of Serhiyovych into a monologue. This is a world of entire monologues-in-action. To have the dialogue with somebody means automatic creation of fragile unity with the Other. Serhiyovych doesn’t belong to any affiliation. He has a hypothesis: “There are people worse than bees and there are people like bees. But perhaps there are no people better than bees.” The thing is that people are not the bees: in Kurkov’s world, people don’t live together. And what is more – they don’t survive together. The stories in this world will be never ended because they just don’t have and can’t have the listener. Especially that one who will give a counter replica, clarify the question and sum up the heard.

The exception is the dreams. Here, Serhiyovych actively interacts with others. The dreams compared to real life are surprisingly eventful. Serhiyovych sees several dozens of dreams during the novel: from reminiscents how a Donetsk ex-mayor came to sleep on his bees (a nice dude he was) to the story about how his wife left him out of blue and went to Vinnytsa (a nice woman she was). A prompt: the more the dreams in a work of fiction, the less the chances for a deep psychological development of the character who sees those dreams. The dreams are complete helplessness of the novel, the author reveals honestly that he doesn’t know what to do with his character. The drams in “Bees” create an illusion of Serhiyovych’s full autonomy not only from the world which Kurkov made for him but from the author of this world himself. Mono-reality belongs exclusively to Serhiyovych. In short, the bees aren’t people, people aren’t the bees, the characters of the novel are neither people nor bees. “When the silence isn’t full, the desire to fill it appears against the will. But how?”

In Kurkov’s original text, there is one peculiarity (lost in translation) worth of attention. His language is specifically artificial, partly “broken”, it connects official jargon with archaisms. In a nutshell, Andrii Kurkov writes like Andrii Platonov. In this way, the author of “Bees” emphasizes the abnormality of the situation in which his characters stuck, an unproductive mix of ideologies in their heads, before which the “smooth” standard language paces. Kurkov’s language experiments were easily transferred to Ukrainian translation but for inversions abuse (intentional!). This is not the way of archaization as it seems at first glance: Kurkov doesn’t write ballads and bylinas. “Wrong” word order in a sentence is a visual and easy way to hint: the finale here is terminated. If there is a verb at the end of a sentence you will find out what happened in the end. If a novel about the war is written by inversions so will be the finale of it – both on the level of topic and idea. The war is going, the biography of a character who calls himself “the citizen of war” is going. The war cannot fit a normal word order and the common practice (rather demonstrably in “Bees”), it postpones the moment when the norm will be established.

The mix of styles and ideologies in the world of “Bees” works at the level of symbols, not only language. Here’s the most obvious example. In the run-down village, there are Shevchenko and Lenina Streets left (on each street, there is its own character) and Michuryn Lane which connects them. That Michuryn who adjusted different plants to each other to provide grateful peoples with a lavish crop of the advanced plant. Tailoring Lenin to Shevchenko wasn’t successful as it turned out due to historical reasons: the ability to reproduction was lost by two ideologies as a result of experiments. The same way, for example, high biblical metaphors can’t put down the roots without losses in the description of local war (about it – a little bit further). Kurkov generously opposes the way of writing about the war in the east, which gradually reigned in us – as about a catastrophe of biblical scale, as a parable for the most part.

One event-related point in the novel, connected to those streets, should have shot but no. All rifles in “Bees” stay loaded and hang on the walls. In the world of crisis stagnation, the catastrophe won’t take place. One night Serhiyovych himself renames the streets. He simply takes off all plates with “Lenina Street” and nails “Shevchenko Steert” up instead. “Michuryn Lane” remains on its place. This is what he heard about the de-communization that is going on in Ukraine and joins processes. And he is tired of living on Lenina Street but his neighbor can’t come up with Shevchenko Street. So, everyone is glad of renaming: Serhiyovych plans to offend Pashka by calling him a “Soviet Lenin” but Pasha, in turn, is pleased with the compliment. And this by no means doesn’t affect their lives and the plot of the novel.

By the way, about the ones who don’t influence the plot directly but form the topic of the novel. And the topic of the novel – it’s about the impossibility of fruitful dialogue and incompleteness of interaction of individual members in underdeveloped communities

Serhiyovych’s ex-wife is called Vitalina (from vita – life). But it seems (I’ll risk assuming) important that her name concords with Jezebel. It’s not just a biblical arrogance, the association is both more complex and more transparent. This an old classical film Jezebel by William Wyler. According to the story of the film, a rebel girl wears a defiant red dress on the debutant’s ball, for which she is left by her groom, whom she continues to love, hate all her life. Kurkov also has a dress – not the red one but a blight blue with a specific print: from the bottom to the neckline a horde of ants sprawls (political senses of blue and orange we put in braces for now). This dress will appear in the novel before Vitalina herself, who left her husband and left the garment in memory. Vitalina appears in his dreams – restricted in interactions with the world, self-isolated Serhiyovych literally lives in his dreams.

The story was as follows: Vita came to a small village and wore that defiant dress to church on first Sunday, the husband asked her not to do this and didn’t support her in that “walk of arrogance” what she couldn’t forgive him. In his dreams he sees a different story: he walks down the village, taking his defiantly dressed wife by hand. Also, a fantasy that is not realized to the end, although it is not about love in fact, but about the conflict of presentations about the ideologies that form the community. (And an important thing here: blue merged with orange on the one dress which a woman-refugee left to his ex-husband in the occupied territory). The coincidence of plots in the novel and the film must lead to the biblical name of Jezebel whatsoever. The brutal queen-idolatrous was punished, supporters of Yahweh after the victory in the rebellion fed her to the dogs (the dogs, Zhadan made the symbols of this war, it’s worth mentioning that dialogue of “Bees” and “Internat” is probably conscious).

In the same indirect way, Kurkov gives one more biblical legend: Samson and his honey from a lion’s head. Once he tore a lion by his hands and now, traveling and reflecting on the marriage with idolater (again!) – he stumbles upon a corpse. In the head of a dead lion, the bees live and his head was full of honey. Samson tasted that honey and treated parents to it, getting married. Everyone knows how the love life of Samson ended up. Right bees, wrong people, honey donated by a killed natural enemy. The thing is that Samson treated honey to parents without saying that he took it from an unclean animal. He fed relatives with “ideological poison” instead of sweets. Honey in the world of Gray Bees is the only currency, Serhiyovych exchanges honey for food, for example. For tea with honey, he gets that evil grenade (which he hid in a hive, by the way, and which blows him up later). This is not the sweetness of sin, it is the sweetness of punishment – we read this story in the same way. You did something bad, you repented, you’re forgiven. It’s only in the world of Kurkov that there is nobody to repent to, nobody will hear you. And honey here, perhaps, is just honey, because unclean here are the heads.

Well, one more moment, same ironic and symbolic. Pashka-vatnyk appears in the novel in a jacket with a high collar. It is noted immediately that his head inside of high collar looks like the bell clapper. But onwards it is more: he fidgets from separatists a new “humanitarian” jacket – red with a cross on the back. Serhiyovych says that this is obviously church. And all this on the background of the often-mentioned church on Lenina Street, that once had been there, but later it was blown up, only a bell can be seen under the debris. And there was also a Russian sniper spot nearby, which was removed by Ukrainians. Why, does a completely negative character Pashka appear instead of the church in the village? Is he that saint who holds the village now? No, he isn’t. This is a way to show the world in which sacred metaphors don’t work. And if something resembles a church bell, it just looks like a church bell. And if the life around you vaguely resembles the revelation of St. John, it doesn’t mean that the Apocalypse came.

In a novel, filled with symbols and metaphors, written with a claim to a parable, the war actually means only one thing: the war goes on. New senses are formed at the expense of the context, new contents arise within the processes of dialogue. There is no context, no dialogue. Everything is simplified to the specificity of once seen: here’s a living person, here’s the dead, here’s shelling, here’s beating, here’s the bees hum, here’s the sweet honey. There is a somewhat slippery notion of ‘concrete poetry’. Kurkov has written ‘concrete prose’. To give simple names to something that can’t be simple a priori? – Okay. ‘Complicated’ means unclear or inappropriate or unnecessary. So what is simple? – Something that is not complicated, I assume. Gray Bees is about cruel simplicity of the war. Like the simplicity of a ‘simple’ pencil – everything turns out gray.

Hanna Uliura

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