During my visit to Tulsa, Oklahoma last month to spend time with my daughter, son-in-law and grandson, I also had the serendipitous pleasure to meet with a a talented Ukrainian poet, author, translator and intellectual by the name of Boris Dralyuk. Boris is a professor at the University of Tulsa and has gained renown in recent years as a prize-winning translator of both classical and contemporary Slavic literature. He has translated the works of a wide range of Russian, Ukrainian and Polish authors including Leo Tolstoy, Isaac Babel, Alexander Pushkin, Dariusz Sośnicki and Andriy Kurkov. Boris was born in Odesa in 1982 but grew up mostly in the U.S. where his family fled when he was still young. He completed high school in Los Angeles and earned a PhD in Slavic Languages and Literatures from UCLA. He has taught at UCLA, the University of St. Andrews in Scotland, and currently is a professor at the University of Tulsa.
I met Boris after my daughter recommended that I read his latest translation of a book by Ukrainian author Andriy Kurkov titled Grey Bees. Although born in Leningrad in 1961, Kurkov’s family moved to Kyiv when he was just two years old, and he has lived most of his life in Ukraine. He is a prolific author, with 19 novels to his credit, as well as an array of children’s books. He has also written extensively for the Ukrainian television and the movie industry. His most recent book Grey Bees centers on the struggle for survival of an elderly, disabled beekeeper by the name of Sergey Sergeyich who lives in the grey zone between the front lines near Donetsk in the tiny village of Starhorodivka, eluding snipers and frequent shelling between the Ukrainian forces and the rebel Russian “separatists”. The book is a powerful dissection of the gritty reality that innocent Ukrainians in the war zone face every day while a conflict that few really understand rages around them.
Krukov has an interesting style of writing that effectively melds the minute descriptive details of life in a war zone, with the psychological and emotional musings of Sergey, the beekeeper, whose primary drive and purpose in life seems to have been reduced to insuring the well-being of his bees. His life is an existential drama with the war as a background. The book makes no real attempt to render moral judgments or shed light on the causes of the conflict. It merely documents the effect that this current war has had on a very ordinary Ukrainian trying to make sense of the chaos that surrounds him.
In a way, Sergey is an anti-hero, though he is one with a strong, albeit simplistic set of ideals and morals that guide his behaviour and actions as he navigates around the challenges and dangers of his daily life. This becomes particularly evident when Sergey departs the “grey zone”, taking his bees towards what he believes will be the safer sanctuary and greener pastures of Crimea. Once there, he settles near a Tatar community and becomes acquainted with their mistreatment and persecution at the hands of the Russian occupying authorities. Although no longer in a combat zone, Sergey discovers that there is no sanctuary in Crimea either.
Reading the book brought back memories of another book I read many decades ago, Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich. Like “Grey Bees” it recounted the minutia in the life of a very ordinary person caught up in a struggle to survive against forces he can’t comprehend and over which he has no control. Both books are in essence a psychological and spiritual examination of homo ordinarius during times of extreme stress. In both cases, the author leaves it up to the reader to draw their own moral judgments as to what is transpiring, though it is fairly obvious where the authors’ sympathies lie.
Grey Bees is an engaging and absorbing book, one I found hard to put down once I started reading. I would strongly recommend it to anyone who wants to understand what is going on in eastern Ukraine beneath the headlines, on a more personal human level. It is available in most leading bookstores in North America as well as on Amazon in several language translations including English, French and Spanish.