“Grey Bees,” a novel with a beautiful blue and yellow cover, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, appeared on my bookshelf soon after the invasion there and hovered between my “read now” and my “books about Ukraine” shelves while the war dragged on for a year and a half.
Not because I’m uninterested – quite the opposite; pitched as a ‘heartening tale of humanity in the midst of war and chaos’ centered on Sergey, a beekeeper lingering in his Donbas village between Russian and Ukrainian armies in 2014, the book looks exactly what I want and need to read these days – but because I am reading physical books at a pace of 5 pages a week lately. Still, that cover called to me, part of the landscape of my home office that didn’t quite fade into the background.
Then this summer I got an email invitation: Story House Ithaca and Ithaca City of Asylum hosting “Truth, Lies, and Literature,” a virtual conversation with novelist Andrey Kurkov and his translator, Doris Dralyuk, live from Kyiv. It rang a bell. Kurkov, Kurkov, Kurkov…Yes: author of “Grey Bees.”
The conversation on an August Saturday morning (evening for those in Ukraine) was delightful, informative, heartrending – and, like the novel is purported to be, heartening.
Andrey opened by reading a diary entry from the current war. He’s paused writing fiction but has been chronicling events and his life. Dinner guests, tiny but cozy apartment, sense of being in this together.
Then he talked about his history as a writer in Ukraine, which seems like a history of poking fun at Soviet (and now Russian) authorities. In 1983, he auditioned for a job at a Soviet newspaper by interviewing five “heroes,” most of whom he didn’t like or believe in. He didn’t get the job, but he saw through some of his subjects’ propaganda and got a kick out of it. Andrey Kurkov strikes me as someone who always has a quiet chuckle under his thoughts.
Journalism and fiction held almost reverse places in Soviet Ukraine, he said, with papers towing the party line to the point of fiction and fiction telling the truth, but slant (with humor and satire being a prime strategies for keeping facts straight.)
Now, he said, the most credible information about the current war comes out in blogs. Poets are sharing the emotional truth of the war in poetry collected online (brilliant case in point: Words for War: New Poetry from Ukraine.) No one is writing fiction – who has the energy? His own new novel, he paused in February 2022 while the stress of his own experience swamped the ability to imagine anyone else’s.
Ukrainians are reading history, he said, to remember why they are fighting. He recommended the work of Anne Applebaum, Timothy Snyder, and Sergii Plokhy to English readers: these and a few others are on my shelf and in my browser history, too.
Just recently, Andrey has picked up his novel in progress again. He said it’s a detective novel starring a hapless hero named Sampson making his way through the four-way war that rocked Ukraine in 1919-1921.
And I’ve picked up “Grey Bees.” I do struggle with my lack of time for reading. I make time for writing, but reading physical books has fallen away almost completely. I get five minutes a day, maybe – a few pages. I crawl through books and it’s making me sad.
As I read the first pages of this novel about a man whose house lies between competing armies, who lives to save his bees, the context of both the fiction and its creator are fresh in my mind.
Jami Attenberg’s CRAFT TALK newsletter from this month comes to mind:
“Sometimes you just have to remind yourself that you’re lucky you get to do this in the first place. If it’s something you get to make any kind of living at, you’re lucky. If you’re someone with the ability or luxury to carve out actual time in your day to be creative, you’re lucky. If you live in a place where freedom of speech is a given, you’re lucky. If your brain is still healthy and working, then you’re goddamn lucky.”
I’m lucky I got to hear from Andry Kurkov in Ukraine. I’m lucky I get to read his book, however slowly. We are all lucky – and I learned this through my time as part of Ithaca City of Asylum – that fiction and poetry connect us to people in other countries through this marvelous thing called a story.
We are lucky to have writers like Andrey.
I can’t wait to read his new book.