Der Tod eines Bienenzüchters by Lars Gustafsson

The title — The Death of a Beekeeper — lets readers know right away that this will not be an overly cheerful novel. It is a moving story, eventually a beautiful one in its slightly off-kilter way. Which is only fair because the beekeeper, one Lars Lennart Westin, often called “Wiesel,” is a slightly off-kilter man.

Der Tod eines Bienenzüchters by Lars Gustafsson

The book begins with a few pages of framing story from a first-person but unnamed narrator, presumably Gustafsson himself. He is in the Chisos Mountains in the Big Bend country of Texas, with a friend who is a professor of Old Icelandic at the University of Texas. When I first read the frame, I thought that the friend gave the narrator the notebooks that form the rest of the novel, but checking again I see that that it not true. The main thing that this story does is to introduce the motto that Wiesel will write numerous times in the notebooks that chronicle the last months of his life: We don’t give up. We begin again.

(The frame was odd for me to read because I think I have been in the exact spot that Gustafsson describes, looking out across the border into Mexico, and it is a very long way from anywhere.)

Wiesel had been a teacher in various schools in central Sweden, but by the time the story begins he has left the profession though he is not yet 40 years old because depopulation in the region has meant that the district authorities have kept closing the schools where he was working. Eventually he stops chasing the next assignment and makes do financially with odd jobs, spending very little, and keeping bees to sell their honey. He was married for a while, but isn’t anymore. At the book’s opening, it is spring, and he has noticed that he did not do enough the previous autumn to prepare the hives for winter, and he had a considerable backlog of maintenance on his homestead that he hadn’t had the energy for either.

One conceit of the book is that it is the transcription of entries from three notebooks that Wiesel left behind: one yellow, one blue (these are Sweden’s national colors), and one that is damaged. Gustafsson divides the book into seven parts: The Letter, A Marriage, A Childhood, Intermission, When God Awakened, Memoirs From Paradise, The Damaged Notebook. Taken together, they tell the story of Wiesel’s life and death, what he has experienced, how he views the world, and what he thinks about his impending departure from it.

The letter of the first part is one that he receives from the local health authority after finally going to doctors to check on a pain that has been growing all winter. He describes the in-between state of hospital waiting rooms, and the kinds of people one encounters there. It’s specific to small-town Sweden in the mid-1970s, but it’s also common to modern medicine in general. Of course he has to wait for results, and so he makes his way back to his solitary lakeside homestead. When the letter with the results does arrive, he does not open it right away. What if it is untreatable cancer? Does he want to read a death sentence that he can do nothing about? On the other hand, what if it tells him that he has a serious condition that needs urgent attention? Will he doom himself by not reading what he thinks is bad news? What if the doctors are as mystified as he is? Wiesel is not the average person who would have to know; he is what I think might be a peculiar Swedish type, self-reliant to a fault, independent to the point of detriment, and determined. “We don’t give up. We begin again.”

The next two sections fill in Wiesel’s biography, showing how he came to be who he is. The incidents also showed me a slice of life in wartime, neutral Sweden. There’s hardship, and smuggling, and occasionally hilarious capers. When peace returns, Sweden becomes prosperous much like the rest of post-war Western Europe, and it’s interesting to see the old and new collide. He also married into a wealthy family, and the gap between their notions and the life that he and his wife lead as schoolteachers in small rural communities is another source of both humor and tension.

The Death of a Beekeeper is also a story of living with pain. Gustafsson’s descriptions are spare, but nonetheless harrowing. How pain consumes all of his thoughts, how even when it recedes he dreads its return, how he hardly dares to hope that it might go away for longer, how he hardly dares not to hope. The times when he can’t write in the notebooks for days at a time. How he knows that his end is probably coming soon, how difficult that is to conceive. What he chooses to do with his days, on those days when he can choose. “We don’t give up. We begin again.”

In fewer than 200 pages, Gustafsson gives readers a full life, a unique person, an illustration of the proverb that each individual is a whole world.


The Death of a Beekeeper is part of the series of 50 More Great Novels of the Twentieth Century that the Süddeutsche Zeitung published in 2008–09. The first set was published in 2004–05.

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