“Grey Bees”, first published in Ukraine in 2018, is a novel by Andrey Kurkov, a Russian-born Ukrainian writer known for his dark humour and vivid depictions of life in post-Soviet Ukraine. This novel’s protagonist, Sergey, is a lonely retired beekeeper living in now war-ravaged Donbas. As much as he wants to stay neutral and mind his own “beesness” - if you forgive us the pun - there comes a moment when shelling becomes too much of a disturbance for his bees. Sergey is worried that the honey will have an aftertaste of war. So he loads his beehives into his old Lada and embarks on a modern-day odyssey through Ukraine in search of peace.
Sergey’s journey takes him through the Zaporizhzhia region to Crimea, and Kurkov’s writing gives the story a fable-like quality. On his way, Sergey will have to overcome many obstacles, such as checkpoints, Russian mercenaries and propaganda TV crews, and traumatized Ukrainian veterans. Through the eyes of this mild-mannered man, we get to witness the - somewhat Kafkaesque - cruelty, stupidity and futility of war ravaging his homeland. With some elements of magical realism and an introspective narrative, this book is a comforting read, and one of its messages is that of hope and shared humanity. If you like Bulgakov, Murakami or Kafka - you will surely enjoy Kurkov’s “Grey Bees” too.
Ukraine’s most famous novelist dramatises the conflict raging in his country through the adventures of a mild-mannered beekeeper.
Little Starhorodivka, a village of three streets, lies in Ukraine’s Grey Zone, the no-man’s-land between loyalist and separatist forces. Thanks to the lukewarm war of sporadic violence and constant propaganda that has been dragging on for years, only two residents remain: retired safety inspector turned beekeeper Sergey Sergeyich and Pashka, a “frenemy” from his schooldays.
With little food and no electricity, under ever-present threat of bombardment, Sergeyich’s one remaining pleasure is his bees. As spring approaches, he knows he must take them far from the Grey Zone so they can collect their pollen in peace. This simple mission on their behalf introduces him to combatants and civilians on both sides of the battle lines: loyalists, separatists, Russian occupiers and Crimean Tatars. Wherever he goes, Sergeyich’s childlike simplicity and strong moral compass disarm everyone he meets.
But could these qualities be manipulated to serve an unworthy cause, spelling disaster for him, his bees and his country?
Grey Bees is as timely as the author’s Ukraine Diaries were in 2014, but treats the unfolding crisis in a more imaginative way, with a pinch of Kurkov’s signature humour. Who better than Ukraine’s most famous novelist – who writes in Russian – to illuminate and present a balanced portrait of this most bewildering of modern conflicts?
Praise and awards
"A warm and surprisingly funny book from Ukraine's greatest living novelist." - Charlie Connelly, New European Books of the Year
"Sergey is at once a war-weary adventurer and a fairy-tale innocent . . . His naive gaze allows Kurkov to get to the heart of a country bewildered by crisis and war, but where kindness can still be found . . . Translated by Boris Dralyuk with sensitivity and ingenuity." - Uilleam Blacker, Times Literary Supplement
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