The Yiddish Schmoozers welcome Boris Dralyuk to our upcoming January discussion of Ukrainian author Andrey Kurkov's darkly humorous and hopeful novel Grey Bees.
This book represents our second foray into contemporary Ukrainian literature, following our recent discussion of The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan. Kurkov, like Zhadan, introduces us to characters hanging on with both hands to bare survival in an active war zone, in the Donbas in 2014, in which pro-Russian and pro-Ukrainian fighters cannot be easily distinguished one side from the other. As in Zhadan's book, every contemplated movement conjures danger and ambiguity.
Sergey Sergeyich and his childhood rival Pashka are the two remaining hold-outs in their village, located in the contested no-man's-land, the war's Grey Zone. A sense of constraint pervades the first chapters of Kurkov's book, symbolized by the figure of an unidentified dead combatant frozen at a distance but visible from both Sergey's and Pashka's houses. The decimated landscape is populated by snipers and the ghostly remembrance of former neighbors who boarded up their houses and fled. It is winter, there is snow, and supplies of fuel and food are dwindling. . . .
Sergey and Pashka, exchange visits to one another's home, lend things to one another, provide a helping hand with repairs, and share conversations. The conversations are guarded. They already know the outlines of one another's life, having lived in the same village, but as they observe one other at closer range, Sergey surmises that Pashka has been getting supplies from the pro-Russian separatists. In effect, this means that the secretive Pashka has aligned himself with the enemies of the pro-Ukrainian Sergey.
But the men avoid confronting one another. Why should they disturb their own fragile peace in Little Starhorodivka with political arguments, when their paramount interest is survival? The two have come to depend on and care about the other in their outwardly wary and unsentimental way. They cooperate at risk of coming under sniper fire as they carry out Sergey's whimsical project to rearrange the Soviet-era signs so that his mail will no longer be addressed to him on Lenin Street. Of course, no one is delivering mail.
Sergey Sergeyich (whose name is a play on the word "Grey" in the book's title) is a beekeeper. It is winter and Sergey's six bee hives are hibernating in the locked garage where Sergey's car is also wintering over. If the garage and hives survive the blasts coming from the separatists' direction, then Sergey will need to find a safer place to move his bees. Sergey and his bees are famous locally for their healing effects, having been twice been engaged by the governor of the Donbas, who slept on a board and a mattress on top of the hives to awaken, as promised, refreshed and revived. Against the reader's sense that the entire book Grey Bees might mean being cooped up in Sergey's head, the coming of spring palpably releases us. This is entirely due to the writer Andrey Kurkov and translator Boris Dralyuk's lovingly tantalizing description of spring's signs slowly reviving life in Little Starhorodivka. This is writing you can actually feel.
No spoilers here, but I have taken you only to the threshold of this book's action and its hold on me. It is as if Kurkov has given us two starkly different books in one: Part I, Winter, and Part II, Spring. But the books are absolutely necessary to one another, getting their meaning from the contrast. In Part II, Spring, Sergey takes the bees on the road, out of the Grey Zone, to find a protected spot in nature where Sergey can camp while the awakened swarms range freely each day to find flowers and return each night to the hive. Like his bees, Sergey also wakes up, meets a Ukrainian woman, Galya, who helps him, while both benefit from a congenial affair. Sergey drives through Ukraine south to Crimea, into Russian territory, where he meets . . . . Well, perhaps it is best to stop here.
Be sure to join us on Sunday, January 22, 3:00-4:30 pm. Don't forget that we are hosting translator Boris Dralyuk (see bio below).
--Gelya Frank, January 14, 2023
About the Translator
Boris Dralyuk is a Ukrainian-American short story writer, poet, essayist, editor and translator. He is the outgoing Editor in Chief of the Los Angeles Review of Books. Born in Odesa and transplanted to Southern California at any early age, he obtained his high school degree from Fairfax High School and his PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA, where he has also taught Russian literature.
Boris is co-editor (with Robert Chandler and Irina Mashinski) of “The Penguin Book of Russian Poetry” (2015), editor of “1917: Stories and Poems from the Russian Revolution” (Pushkin Press, 2016), and translator of Isaac Babel, Andrey Kurkov, Maxim Gorky, Leo Tolstoy, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and other authors.
His poems have appeared in “The New York Review of Books,” “The New Criterion,” “The Yale Review,” “The Hopkins Review,” and elsewhere. His newest collection “My Hollywood and Other Poems” was published by Paul Dry Books in April 2022.
Copyright Gelya Frank and Yiddish Shmoozers in Translation 2023