The Death of a Beekeeper Essay - Critical Essays

Lars Gustafsson

Critical Context

The Death of a Beekeeper is the last in a sequence of five novels with the overall title Sprickorna i muren. The structure is based on Dante’s Divine Comedy. The first three novels, Herr Gustafsson sjalv (1971; Mr. Gustafsson himself), Yllet (1973; wool), and Familjefesten (1975; the family party), describe the Inferno, while the fourth, Sigismund (1976; English translation, 1985), takes the reader through Purgatory.

The Death of a Beekeeper is the ironically conceived Paradise section. It is actually a story of death. In it, many characters and themes from the earlier novels recur. The science-fiction elements present in The Death of a Beekeeper, for example, have appeared in earlier novels, in particular Yllet and Sigismund. Also characteristic of Gustafsson is the way in which Westin’s thoughts return to the idyllic landscape of his childhood—the section devoted to childhood memories is entitled “Memoirs of Paradise.” The autobiographical elements—so prominent in the first two parts of the novel sequence—are absent here, except for the “prelude.” Many of the ideas presented in the earlier novels are made clear and brought to a conclusion in The Death of a Beekeeper. The five novels have a common theme: lies and hypocrisy in public and private life. In the last novel, Westin confronts the problem of lies in his science-fiction story about objects replacing language.

Gustafsson explores other ideas present in the earlier novels: the limits of the self, the relation of the individual to society (Westin retreats from society so completely that he elects to face death in solitude) and—more important in this last novel—to the uncontrollable forces of illness and death. Westin’s contact with reality has been brought about not by love or by immersion in nature but by pain. The Death of a Beekeeper, as Gustafsson himself has said, paraphrases Rene Descartes in proclaiming, “I suffer. Therefore I am.”

Critics consider The Death of a Beekeeper as Gustafsson’s best novel before the equally acclaimed Bernard Foys tredje rockad (1986; Bernard Foy’s third castling).