by Anthony Burgess
, published in 1963 by Heinemann
Not giving too much away, the novel tells the story of an English man named Paul and his American wife, who travel to St. Petersburg/Leningrad with the intention of selling a suitcase full of dresses on the black market. Of course, things do not go exactly as planned, and the novel follows Paul as he deals with shady figures from the Russian underworld, the secret police, the Russian medical profession and a school trip of British Communists.
The novel is not the best Burgess ever wrote, but it is still an enjoyable comic farce. The quirks of Soviet-era Leningrad are lovingly described, for example the workers bar where the clientele drink champagne yet cannot afford to buy new clothing. He also highlights the similarities between life in early-60's Russia and Britain, with Paul constantly having to remind himself that he is in Leningrad and not the North-East of England. In fact, these similarities really form the point of the book. Burgess seems to be commenting on the use of control in all societies, be they Western or Soviet, ancient or modern. The role of authority figures within our lives is also a recurring theme.
Music and linguistics both feature prominently, which is fairly typical of Burgess. Although the linguistic games in Honey for the Bears do not come close to those played in A Clockwork Orange, there are still some clever little passages discussing the etymology of Russian words and the multitudes of parallels between Russian and English. As always, a novel by Burgess really cannot be accurately described by recounting the story alone - his style of writing lends so much to the book.
For those of us that did not live through the Cold War, the book is a fascinating insight into the situation at the time, and the genuine fear and amazement on both sides. Bear in mind that the story is set in the Russia of Khruschev and Lenin, who were winning the space race and looked set to conquer the world. Not a situation I can remember...
If it bothers you, the bears are the Russians and the honey is Paul's wife. If I tell you any more, it might ruin the twists and turns of a hilarious story.