“To Live Means a Life Being Lived”: Andrey Kurkov’s Lonely Beekeeper and Julia Nemirovskaya’s Reflective Poems

On October 30, which seems a lifetime ago, the always-thoughtful editors of Punctured Lines posted a brief interview with me, in which I mentioned three current projects:

I’m awaiting the publication of my translation of Andrey Kurkov’s latest novel, Grey Bees — a moving, gently surreal picaresque set in Donbas and Crimea two years into the current war. […] Alex Fleming, Nicolas Pasternak Slater, and I are also making great progress on a second volume of Maxim Osipov’s beguilingly nuanced stories and essays, and are relishing every minute of it. Julia Nemirovskaya’s humbly revelatory and incomparably humane verse continues to work its way through me.

I’ll have much more to say about Maxim’s stories in the coming months, but I can now offer an update on Andrey’s novel and Julia’s verse. This past Thursday, Grey Bees finally spread its wings, and to mark the occasion the team at MacLehose Press shared my translation of Andrey’s foreword, which describes the ongoing war in Ukraine with admirable clarity:

Since the winter of 2015, less than a year after Russia’s annexation of Crimea and the start of the conflict, I have taken three journeys through Donbas, the eastern region that contains Donetsk, Luhansk and the grey zone. There I witnessed the population’s fear of war and possible death gradually transform into apathy. I saw war becoming the norm, saw people trying to ignore it, learning to live with it as if it were a rowdy, drunken neighbour. This all made such a deep impression on me that I decided to write a novel. It would focus not on military operations and heroic soldiers, but on ordinary people whom the war had failed to force from their homes.

The protagonist of Andrey’s novel, a beekeeper named Sergey Sergeyich, is one of these resigned residents of the grey zone, who only quits his attempts to make peace with the war when it threatens his apian dependents. And if you think that premise is far-fetched, I invite you to listen to the following story, shared by the Ukrainian delegation of the International Committee of the Red Cross:

I found it to be a moving confirmation of Andrey’s novelistic intuition. And having spent a full year with Sergeyich, visualizing his every move, I was also delighted to see how closely the images in my head matched a set of photographs from the Ukrainian stage adaptation of Grey Bees, on now at the Theater on Podol.

Bohdan Benyuk in the lead role.

Sergeyich is a lonely man who gradually breaks out of his shell-shocked shell by reflecting on what he and others have in common, though he never loses sight of the particularity of each person’s experience. Come to think of it, that’s a fairly sound policy for a translator: focus on the commonality but don’t ignore individuating differences.

In a note accompanying my translations of three poems by Julia Nemirovskaya, which have just been published in the elegant, Dantesquely named journal La Piccioletta Barca, I speak about the mirroring effect of literature — the way the writing of others reveals us to ourselves. Instead of repeating myself, I’ll let you gaze into Julia’s “Mirror,” one of the three poems.


My father left me his face
and all that was his to give.
I’ll carry this mirror always —
in it, father still lives.

My father left me my home
and everything it contains.
I enter for half an hour —
a wasp beats against the panes.

On his birthday we’ll sit a while,
silently drinking wine.
To live means a life being lived —
not necessarily mine.


Папа оставил мне лицо,
И всё, что было его.
Зеркало буду носить с собой,
В зеркале он живой.

Папа оставил мне мой дом,
И всё, что в доме моём.
В дом свой зайду я на полчаса —
Бьётся в окно оса.

В день рожденья его посидим,
Молча попьём вино.
Слово жить — значит быть живым.
Необязательно мной.

8 thoughts on ““To Live Means a Life Being Lived”: Andrey Kurkov’s Lonely Beekeeper and Julia Nemirovskaya’s Reflective Poems

  1. That’s a wonderful poem, Boris, and as I lost my father 5 years ago it resonates – beautiful, and thank you for sharing it.

    And I need to reacquaint myself with Kurkov – it’s too long since I read him. So please you’re working on more of Maxim Osipov’s stories – the last collection was just excellent!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’m so sorry for your loss, dear Kaggsy, but I am glad that the poem resonates with you. It also resonates with me, deeply, although — or perhaps because — my relationship with my father was fraught, and cut short; he passed away over two decades ago.

      You’ll love the new Osipov collection! And soon I’ll offer a substantial sneak peek.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. […] At around this time in 2019 I posted my translation of a poem by Julia Nemirovskaya in which the speaker journeys to Hades with gifts for Osip Mandelstam and Marina Tsvetaeva. My translation must have pleased the gods, because, throughout this rather miserly year, I’ve been rewarded with the opportunity to collaborate with Julia on many more poems, which I’ve shared when they were published. […]


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