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Anthony Burgess: Honey for the Bears

This is not one of Burgess’ best books – it reads too much like an English novel of the fifties-sixties – but it is very amusing. Paul, an English antiques dealer, and his wife, Belinda, from Amherst, Massachusetts, are smuggling a consignment of drilon dresses into the Soviet Union to make a bit of money. Inevitably, things go wrong. Belinda gets ill and, eventually, dumps Paul and defects to the Soviet Union. Paul gets into all sorts of difficulties, with his contact arrested, his luggage mislaid and the Soviet bureaucracy becoming increasingly difficult to navigate. However, what makes this novel particularly funny, are the two amusing KGB agents – Zverkov and Karamzin (the names are, presumably, not accidental, Zverkov being a character in Dostoevsky’s Notes from the Underground and Karamzin a well-known Russian writer) – who doggedly and, occasionally, violently track Paul around Leningrad and, indeed, even as far as Helsinki. They do not conform to our preconceived ideas of KGB agents, even though they are not averse to a spot of violence, but are more your humorous Russians, witty but phlegmatic.

Burgess gives us a good taste of Leningrad as Paul ends up staying in a flat rented by Alexei, a Russo-American, and shared with the sharp-tongued Anna. Paul also ends up trapped in Leningrad, his wife in hospital and seemingly destined to stay there and he unable to sell the dresses, till he is taken up by the mysterious Doc and his strange conspirators. Paul drifts aimlessly around Leningrad, eating blood sandwiches, worrying about his loose dentures and unsure of what he is doing or why and, in that, he becomes your typical 1950-1960s English hero.

Publishing history

First published 1963 by Heinemann