How Ukraine’s Greatest Novelist Is Fighting for His Country


Kurkov saved writing his article on the airplane, and by the point we reached Charles de Gaulle, it was completed. He was staying in a lodge close to the Jardin du Luxembourg. After we arrived there, within the pouring rain, a bit after 11:30 a.m., somebody from his French writer, Liana Levi, was ready at reception to escort him to their close by workplaces, the place the afternoon’s battery of interviews was scheduled. By the point I caught up with him once more, for an occasion on the Ukrainian Cultural Heart that night, he had been awake, I calculated, for all however seven of the previous 48 hours. You wouldn’t have recognized it. Standing earlier than a packed viewers on the second ground, Kurkov made his case, in French, for the individuals of Ukraine along with his regular dynamism. Aggrieved sighs and bitter laughter rippled by the room, whose partitions have been decked with scathing antiwar cartoons by French and Ukrainian artists: Putin on the head of an empty convention desk beneath a slogan inviting him to eat feces; an insecure-looking Putin exposing his genitals, accompanied by the phrases Moi j’ai des couilles (“I’ve balls”).

Kurkov was there to debate the warfare, however as a result of “Gray Bees” had just lately appeared in French, the occasion was doubling as a e book speak. 4 years in the past, when the novel first appeared in Ukraine, it was well timed within the excessive; at this time it’s already historic. The story takes place in 2017, three years after Putin despatched his forces into the Donbas area, the place, in contrast to the central and western components of the nation, Soviet nostalgia continues to run excessive. The Russian calculation was easy, Kurkov says in a foreword to the English translation of the e book: “A Ukraine with a everlasting warfare in its japanese area won’t ever be absolutely welcomed by Europe or the remainder of the world.”

Sergeyich, the novel’s protagonist, is sort of literarily caught in the course of this grinding battle. The 280-mile-long entrance between Ukrainian and pro-Russian forces is separated by a slim strip of territory generally known as the “grey zone.” Most of its inhabitants fled at the start of the warfare. Sergeyich, a retired mine-safety inspector, has stayed put and is now one in all solely two remaining residents within the village Little Starhorodivka. “If each final individual took off, nobody would return,” he causes. As shells whistle overhead and provisions run low, Sergeyich appears to think about just one factor — beekeeping. This was as soon as a interest, however now it has burgeoned into one thing extra. Within the absence of household and neighborhood, his hives present him with a way of objective. “He needed to preserve his well being not just for his personal sake, but additionally for the sake of the bees,” Kurkov writes. “If one thing ought to occur to him, they’d perish in all their multitude — and he simply couldn’t enable himself to change into, whether or not by his personal will or in any other case, the annihilator of a whole bunch of 1000’s of bee-souls.”

Sergeyich doesn’t simply look after his creatures; he admires them. The order and cohesion of the hive remind him of Soviet occasions. For all its deprivations, life again then made sense. At the moment there’s solely chaos and confusion. A Russian speaker, Sergeyich resents that the identify on his passport is written in Ukrainian (as “Serhiy Serhiyovych”) and dismisses the Revolution of Dignity as “all that nonsense in Kyiv.” He additionally admires Yanukovych, the ousted president (who enriched himself and his household at appreciable public expense), as somebody you would “perceive and belief, like an previous abacus.” In different phrases, Sergeyich appears to be a well-known modern determine, the type of jaundiced middle-aged man who whines about free speech when he’s informed he can’t name ladies “broads” anymore. Beneath totally different circumstances, he might need been a Trump voter or a Brexiteer. As it’s, he seems a probable candidate for reabsorption into the Russian hive.

Kurkov is out to inform a unique story, nonetheless. Sergeyich lastly decides it’s time to depart the village when he notices his bees are producing bitter honey — burned gunpowder has contaminated the pollen they gather. Packing the hives into his beat-up Lada, he drives first to the neighboring Zaporizhzhia area after which to Crimea, the place he intends to go to an previous buddy, Akhtem, whom he met at a beekeeping conference years earlier. Akhtem is a Crimean Tatar, a member of the Indigenous Muslim minority, whom Russia has been persecuting ever because it annexed the peninsula in 2014. When Sergeyich arrives at his residence, he learns from Akhtem’s spouse that he has been taken into custody: She hasn’t heard from him in nearly two years. Sergeyich is temperamentally apolitical, however as he petitions the authorities for data on his buddy, he’s slowly woke up to the horrors of Russian state violence. Kurkov traces the event of his rustic hero with nice subtlety and care, resisting the impulse to scold or editorialize. It’s laborious to think about an American novelist from the cosmopolitan facilities who has performed the identical with a rust-belt MAGA supporter.

Within the question-and-answer session that adopted his speak, a younger compatriot requested Kurkov if he had any plans to jot down a novel in Ukrainian. He didn’t, he stated, politely but firmly. Later that night, on the compulsory four-hour dinner, the place Kurkov confirmed no signal of flagging, he informed me how a lot the query irritated him. Its subtext was clear: For those who didn’t use the Ukrainian language, you weren’t actually Ukrainian. What’s extra, it appeared to overlook the spirit of “Gray Bees” itself. Whereas the e book reveals a rustic divided by language, area and ethnicity, it additionally means that these divisions are much less entrenched than they seem. Regardless of his Russian roots, Sergeyich turns into buddies with a Ukrainian soldier who makes periodic visits to his residence. In Zaporizhzhia, a shellshocked veteran of the Donbas warfare takes an ax to his Lada, believing him to be a separatist, and but this doesn’t stop Sergeyich from forming a romantic relationship with one of many locals. An Orthodox Christian, he has to beat an instinctive wariness of Akhtem’s observant Muslim household, although he finally ends up dedicated to them.

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