The Death of a Beekeeper

by Lars Gustafsson

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 748

The Death of a Beekeeper opens with what Lars Gustafsson calls a “prelude” in which he says good-bye to the readers of this, the last part of his five-volume novel sequence, Sprickorna i muren (1971-1978; the cracks in the wall). He presents himself as merely the editor of notes left behind on Lars Lennart Westin’s death, telling the reader that the speaker to whom he now hands over the narrative suffers from cancer of the spleen. As the narrative proper begins, the reader knows more than the protagonist.

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The documents used for the narrative are a yellow notebook, the source of most of the entries in the novel, a blue notebook which contains stories (some of them science fiction) that Westin has written, and a torn notebook in which the progress of Westin’s illness is recorded. They cover a period from 1970 to 1975 and have supposedly been found in Westin’s home by his literary executor, Lars Gustafsson.

When the school where he was teaching was consolidated with a bigger school, Westin opted for early retirement. He has decided to settle in the country and keep bees. In an early entry, he worries about the well-being of his bees—he has not winterized the hives properly because he has not been feeling well all fall.

Another early indication of Westin’s illness is the fact that his dog does not seem to recognize him any longer. Westin speculates that perhaps the old dog is losing his sense of smell, or that Westin’s own smell has changed radically. In another entry, Westin relates his reactions on receiving a letter from the hospital where he has gone for tests: He decides not to open the letter, reasoning that if his illness is not life-threatening, it will simply pass, and if the news is about a fatal illness, he does not want to know it. He burns the letter unread.

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The second part of Westin’s narrative tells of his marriage, which was based on a tacit agreement with his wife that they would not get too close to each other, not invade the other person’s private sphere. The spouses acknowledge the emptiness of their marriage after Westin meets a woman doctor, Ann, on a train. They have a brief affair but, more important, they keep in close touch by phone and by letter. Westin tells his wife about Ann and, to his surprise, she is delighted and tells him to ask Ann over for a visit. The two women become friends and, gradually, Westin is the one left alone.

Westin recalls his childhood and tells anecdotes of his relatives. He also has a visit from two twelve-year-old boys, Uffe and Jonny. The boys have a fascination with horror and adventure comics, and Westin begins writing a science-fiction story for them. A feature in the first story is an immense pipe organ which produces intolerable pain. The pain replicates the pain Westin himself feels—a pain which becomes more pronounced as the narrative continues. For a few weeks, however, there is a cessation of pain. Westin decides that the episode of terrible pain he endured meant he had passed some kidney stones and that now his illness is over; he defines paradise as the absence of pain.

Paradise is also defined by Westin as a place where there are no lies. In another science-fiction story, he describes a society in which it is impossible to tell lies since communication is by object and action rather than by words.

The fifth section of the novel consists of a more developed science-fiction story, entitled “When God Awoke.” In this version, God is female. She has been asleep for millions of years, but now She wakes up and starts hearing, and answering, human prayers. When an archbishop prays for peace in the world, She responds by turning all fissionable matter and all weapons into gold. Eventually, since all wishes are immediately fulfilled, language disappears. Humanity, the reader is told, realizes that it has labored under a misapprehension in imagining a punishing paternal god: The truth is that there is a boundlessly indulgent maternal deity. The section ends: “IF GOD LIVES, EVERYTHING IS ALLOWED.”

In the final section of the novel, Westin experiences a return of pain. He finally feels real, but also feels that this new reality is terrible. The novel ends with Westin waiting for an ambulance and hoping that it will not have an accident on the slippery roads.

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