The Quest for Grey Bees


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The quest narrative has been around since the time of language. Some quests are spiritual, others are seeking something material while some are for the acquisition of knowledge. A quest does not need to be some magical journey. Sometimes the quest is for something as simple as a book. This is a tale of my quest for a copy of Andrey Kurkov’s Grey Bees in English here in Ukraine. The beauty of this quest is that it now does not only apply to that particular novel but to the whole of Ukrainian fiction and non-fiction literature. Before beginning the tale, I must state that it would have been easy enough to just download to my Amazon Kindle app or Apple Books on my iPad. However, I am an old school reader and prefer to feel a book in my hands, to highlight passages, and to hear the rustle of the pages and to smell the ink.


November 2020 is when my wife (Natasha) and I moved to Kyiv. The reasons behind this are manyfold and the details are not required here. I arrived in Kyiv and realized I knew nothing about any Ukrainian writers other than, of course, Gogol. Immediately, I set out to explore the landscape of Ukrainian classic and modern literature. Of course, Taras Shevchenko rose before me like the sun over the Dnipro River. One day on a walk, I passed a statue of Oles Honchar in the park named after Honchar himself. The names of the classics and Soviet era Ukrainian writers came to my attention. This stage was really about learning about the writers themselves rather than reading their work.



A statue of Oles Honchar in the park named after Honchar himself



That dreaded Facebook algorithm soon enough began to throw up ads by modern Ukrainian authors. One day, “Grey Bees” came to my attention. The title caught me because I had been a small beekeeper in the US before moving to Ukraine. I did my research about the subject of the book and some additional research about the author. The hook was in and set, but there was no place to reel me in. We started our residency in the Solomianskyi District of Kyiv and there, I found a place called “Bookstore Ye” near the park.



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One cold February day in 2021, Natasha and I made our way through the snow to check out the store. Natasha was interested in improving her Ukrainian, so she quickly bought “Kobzar” by Taras Shevchenko and “Poems, Dramas and Lyrical Works” by Lesya Ukrainka in Ukrainian. The English-language section had a rather sad selection of pop fiction along with British and American classics, most of which I had read in my youth. I managed to buy Serhii Plokhy’s “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine,” so I did not leave empty-handed. Truth be told, Natasha and I never leave a bookstore empty-handed. We are both avid readers with a tendency to literary fiction beyond our non-fiction interests.


Soon enough, we were involved with purchasing a flat and renovating in the city center so neither of us had much time to read. “Grey Bees” still held a place in the back of my mind. “The Gates of Europe: A History of Ukraine” had been a very satisfying and edifying read. At my age, I only seek fiction and non-fiction that edifies. I do not read for entertainment but for enlightenment and insight and to learn writing styles to improve my own style.


Eventually, The flat was finished and then the missiles, tanks and full-scale war came. Reading was too distracting in those early days during the Battle of Kyiv. In fact, I didn’t read anything but news reports and Telegram channels for the first year of war.


October 2022 brought great devastation to the power grid and so we decided to go to Chernivtsi to ride it out. I work remotely, so I need electricity and the internet in order to live. Chernivtsi has its own rather interesting literary heritage and so I thought to myself, well, maybe one of their bookstores will have a copy of “Grey Bees” in English. There were many interesting bookstores there with pretty much all the same titles in English as the ones in Kyiv. How the hell did they not have books by Ukrainian authors in English? Don’t they get tourists who buy them?


I gave up and soon came across the University of Toronto Ukrainian Studies Electronic Library of Ukrainian Literature: Eureka! What a treasure! Sure, I had to read the offerings on a tablet but they were all free. First, I read “The Cathedral” by Oles Honchar. What a novel! The themes and scenery resonated deep in my heart. I devoured this short novel rather quickly. Honchar holds a special place for me because my neighborhood in Kyiv, which holds his park and the Soviet Writer’s House where he lived. Some days, I wonder if I walk in his footsteps or if he thought about St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral when he wrote his work. The cathedral is also in our collective neighborhood.


One day, I passed a plaque of Ivan Franko walking the dog on the streets of Chernivtsi in the ice and snow. I can read Ukrainian letters, so I recognized the name. Later that day, I went and downloaded the free copy from the Electronic Library of “Zakhar Berkut”, the one translated by Thedodosia Boresky in 1944. Yes, I am guilty in that I prefer old things. Wow! What a work of art! This classic of Ukrainian literature captures the people, the heart, and the soul of Ukraine more than any other I have read to this day. In fact, I now recommend it to English readers for how and why Ukrainians have stood up to the enemy who is just a different horde than the one portrayed in the novel. Myroslava, the female protagonist, also has qualities that make me think of Natasha and how Ukrainian her spirit is. An added bonus? Yes. Theodosia includes “A Brief Outline of Ukrainian History” at the end of the book. This is particularly enlightening because it was written in 1944. Some parts of this article were published titled “Ukraine the Forgotten Nation of Europe” in the August 25, 1929 issue of The Commonwealth. I, of course, searched for this periodical but the only existing copies have probably not been archived electronically and may only exist in the basement of some British library.



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Sens Bookstore, Khreshchatyk Street. Photo: Dmytro Larin


Four months into our stay in Chernivtsi, we were longing for our home in Kyiv. Across the street from our AirBnB in our home-away-from-home, internally displaced Ukrainians would line up every morning for food, elderly and baby supplies. Their income level was different than ours, but our realities were the same. People in Chernivtsi generously gave to them, showing the indomitable spirit of so much of Ukraine. During this time, I came across Valerian Pidmohylny’s “The City.” Once I discovered that it was about Kyiv, I had to read it. Yes, it was technically “Soviet” literature, but I didn’t care. How I walked the streets of Podil and visited Khreshchatyk with the main character of the novel. I escaped into the literary portrayal of my beloved Kyiv. This book will always hold a place in my heart for helping me when I was homesick.


“Grey Bees”, however, still lingered. My new strategy was to buy it on Amazon in its physical form and have someone in the US ship it or have one of the British volunteers I work with bring it on their next aid trip to Ukraine.


Alas, war is unpredictable as is life within it. There’s always something to do or missiles to shelter from. My friend invited me to a new bookstore called Sens in the first days of spring of 2024. I had pretty much given up my quest.



John Gordon Sennett with his wife Natasha in Readeat Bookstore, Kyiv


Natasha and I had visited another new bookstore around Christmas 2023 called Readeat but they also didn’t have “Grey Bees,” although they did have a slightly better selection of books in English. Natasha was ecstatic because she found a bunch of books that she could use in her classroom at Pechersk School International. I managed to buy a copy of Jon Fosse’s “Septology” which kept me occupied for quite a while. Additionally, I tucked away “The War That Changed Us” by Kateryna Pylypchuk which I haven’t read yet. Sens did not have a very good selection, but I did manage to buy a rather excellent translation of “Kateryna” by Taras Shevchenko with haunting illustrations. Anton and I sat there and compared notes on finding books in English. He is lucky because he reads English, Ukrainian, and Russian.



Anton was of the opinion that the Boosktore Ye on Mykola Lysenko St has the best selection of books in English. I have a loyalty card for Bookstore Ye, and that particular store is just one block from my house. Last time I was there, it did not have “Grey Bees”, so I didn’t make the trip. A few weeks later, I decided to check the store for “Forgottenness” by Tanja Maijartschuk, as I had read a review by Kate Tsurkan about it. I also realized that I had not read any Ukrainian female authors and wanted to expand my knowledge. Scanning the shelves, I was becoming more discouraged as it seemed clear that Forgottenness was not present. My eyes fell on a book with a yellow spine. “Grey Bees” appeared before my eyes. At last, a quest fulfilled! But that’s not the end.



Don’t some quests result in other quests?



Two days later, I realized that Andrey Kurkov’s “Death and the Penguin” had also been sitting on the shelf. I rushed back and bought it like a greedy person chasing a treasure. Then I decided to visit a café where Andrey Kurkov hangs out on occasion. I know this from his articles he writes for the “Kyiv Post.” Why? Well, I figured he would be gracious enough to sign my book. Alas, he was not there, and he didn’t show while I nursed my coffee. On occasion, I will check the café when time allows and hopefully catch him for a quick signature.



Then, the quest will truly have ended.



POSTSCRIPT: English is heard all over on the streets of Kyiv. Many of these speakers come in for meetings, volunteering, and work. Some of them would probably like to find and read a book by a Ukrainian author but the choices are very limited. Those of us who live here also want these options. How come it is easier to buy an English language copy of a Ukrainian book outside Ukraine rather than in it? If I was an entrepreneur, I would open an English bookstore in Kyiv because I know the demand is there. Oh, and I am about halfway through “Grey Bees.” It is a top notch work of literature, but I have an inside view of the war, so maybe I am biased.


Editing: Nicole Yurcaba



Image: Dmytro Larin, Suspilne