Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Review: Honey for the Bears, by Anthony Burgess
This wordplay (restored in subsequent editions of the book) is not atypical in Honey for the Bears, a novel that practically pulsates with Burgess’ trademark brand of linguistic creativity. The story revolves around Paul Hussey, a British antiques dealer who travels by ship to the Soviet Union with his wife Belinda, ostensibly for a vacation in Leningrad but really to sell high-end drilon dresses to the fashion-starved Russians on the black market. He’s doing this as a favour to Sandra, the widow of his dead friend Robert, who regularly made such smuggles into the Soviet Union.
But the plan goes comically awry in so many delightfully Burgessian ways: Belinda comes down with a painful rash that sees her carted off to a second-rate Russian hospital shortly after their arrival, and Paul is soon hounded by two members of the Soviet secret police looking to bust him in the midst of his scam. To complicate matters, it comes to light that Belinda had a lesbian love affair with Sandra behind Paul’s back, and is now planning to leave him for the female doctor who treats her at the hospital. Paul, meanwhile, has some rather strange experiences that challenge his own sexuality, and this culminates with him attempting to smuggle out the son of the aforementioned Opiskin (a talented composer, greatly admired by Paul, who was suppressed by the Soviets). This involves Paul dressing the lad up like a woman so he can pass as Paul’s wife on the Helsinki leg of the trip home.
Still, there are issues. Once you’ve read enough of the Burgess oeuvre, you start to notice what might be described as the careless repetition of tropes. In Honey for the Bears, this means violent youths (A Clockwork Orange), alcohol-fueled shenanigans aboard a ship (Tremor of Intent) and the need to save and protect a young man with a somewhat messianic relationship to music (Beds in the East). Also, the ending of Honey For the Bears gets bogged down by a rather trite conversation between Paul and his Soviet pursuers, about the nature of freedom, after the two catch up with him in Helsinki.
But overall, this is one of Burgess stronger, more comic performances. Some of the references and relationships in the novel will seem dated to a 21st-century reader, but this in no way makes Honey for the Bears any less sweet.