Honey for the Bears – Anthony Burgess
As a favor to a deceased friend and his widow, Paul and his wife Belinda agree to travel to the USSR on a holiday to carry on his friend’s black market dealings in drilon dresses. Even before Paul and Belinda set foot in the USSR, the whole scheme seems fraught with hazards. While still aboard the ship, Belinda develops a rash and overly friendly crew members become overly familiar with the couple and their suitcases. Although they clear customs easily enough. Paul immediately sets out to stow the dresses while Belinda recovers. His first journey to the hotel and back lands him with two police acquaintances that proceed to track him throughout his time in Leningrad, and he returns to the ship to discover his wife missing. While she convalesces in a Soviet hospital, Paul putters around Leningrad providing English lessons while peddling black market, capitalist goods, making both strategic alliances and enemies. When Belinda finally determines she will not leave the USSR with Paul, he sets out to finish his dealings with the drilon dresses, picks up another traveling companion, and embarks on what he supposes will be his final voyage from Leningrad.
“Honey for the Bears” by Anthony Burgess is an absurd misadventure of the meeting and mingling of societies and cultures, played out at the individual level between Paul and his various acquaintances, and at a broader level in the critiques of capitalism and communism. Burgess is skilled in exaggeration, describing Soviet characters that cycle quickly between the soaring joy and pride of the beauty of the USSR to an unsettled gloom that is both all-encompassing and vague because it has no clearly defined parameters. In addition to transgressing national and economic boundaries, Burgess’s characters also challenge social norms. While Paul sells dresses, he encounters more than one business partner that defies binary gender stereotypes, and both Paul and Belinda display latent and blatant queer behaviors. The series of mishaps and unfortunate (or sometimes fortunate) encounters that Paul experiences add comedy to the novel, and also emphasize the connections between the perceived dualities. Coming from a capitalist country to the communist USSR, he now lives a life that encompasses both. The severity of reality is lessened through impractical and unbelievable circumstances. By exaggerating the differences of polar opposites then uniting them in one story, Burgess tells a story that is comprehensive, vague, and worth further contemplation.
There were quite a few positive aspects of this book. The characters were funny, the plot was funny, the book overall is funny. Absurd, ridiculous, and silly would be good synonyms. I got hung up on a few details, though. Burgess jumps right into the story without giving much background, and it took me a while to figure out what was happening to who, and why I cared as the reader. Also, because the story is set in the USSR, Burgess often includes snippets of Russian and occasionally French (I think), which hinders the readability of the novel. But generally an excellent and enjoyable novel.