Artists ever since Homer, and probably before, have created anti-war art. You may know Picasso’s painting Guernica, Jean Renoir’s great film Grand Illusion, novels such as All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque and Stephen Crane’s Red Badge of Courage. Even the supposedly macho Ernest Hemingway wrote A Farewell to Arms, set in World War I (emphasis on the “farewell”). His main character, Frederic Henry, serving as an ambulance driver during World War I (as did Hemingway), deserts after a chaotic and violent retreat. He is arrested, and, blamed for Italy’s defeat in battle, is about to be shot. The Italian officers, Frederic says, “(S)o far had shot every one they had questioned. The questioners had that beautiful detachment and devotion to stern justice of men dealing in death without being in any danger of it.” Frederic escapes and seeks out his true love, Elizabeth Barkley.
Hemingway and the other artists do not preach. They don’t need to. They place their characters in the midst of war and reveal the immoral destruction of lives, minds, values, and property. Andrey Kurkov, reputedly Ukraine’s greatest living novelist, is another of these artists.
Grey Bees, published in 2018, precedes Russia’s recent invasion of Ukraine, but it reveals the endless state of war that Ukraine (like other nations) has endured. In 2014, Russia annexed the Ukrainian peninsula Crimea. The novel’s main character lives in what’s called the “grey zone,” an area lying between the Ukrainian army and the pro-Russian separatists. Almost everyone has fled the grey zone in order to avoid constant shelling and random acts of violence. A beekeeper, Sergey Sergeyich, and his longtime frenemy, Pashka, remain in their grey-zone village alone.
The war has killed their neighbors, destroyed homes, and deprived the town of electricity. Sergey survives by selling his bees’ honey and bartering and salvaging in neighboring towns. Kurkov doesn’t dwell on atrocities, though they lurk in the background. Sergey’s lonely, hardscrabble life tells the story.
At the same time, Kurkov gently satirizes village life. His mostly gentle story is often funny. As in all wars, bad things happen to good people, but nature occasionally serves as a tonic. One evening, Sergey hears an unfamiliar bird call. Kurkov writes, “The cry had awakened the beekeeper’s curiosity, reviving his mind; he tuned his ears to the colourful, sonorous silence of the world around him, the now silent flying-crying creature suddenly forgotten. Into this silence were woven the whisper of foliage, the breeze’s breath, the buzzing of bees—all the tiny sounds that constitute the peaceful silence of summer.” Kurkov’s lovely prose, translated from Russian by Boris Dralyuk, echoes the evening sounds that comfort Sergey.
Though there are no battles and only intermittent violence, this is a war novel. Russian-born and a native Russian speaker, Kurkov still lives in Ukraine. A recent New York Times article about him says, “Kurkov has dedicated himself to chronicling and contextualizing the war for foreign audiences, a task he has performed with prodigious zeal. Hardly a day goes by now without a new article, radio broadcast, television appearance or public lecture.”
I have about sixty pages of Grey Bees left to read and am portioning it out slowly to delay the end. Have you done that with a book you’re loving? What’s on your bedside table right now?