HONEY FOR THE BEARS by Anthony Burgess is non-stop action. It’s basically one awkward scene after another with no time for narrator or us to catch our breath.
The main character, Paul Hussey, is the owner of an antique store in London. He has given him a number of dresses to sell on the Russian black market to benefit the widow of a recently deceased friend who he fought with in WWII (and who was making a living smuggling things into the USSR). A recently imprisoned composer named Opiskin that both Paul and his friend were fans of is also repeatedly brought up.
When we first meet Paul, he is on a cruise liner headed for Leningrad. His American wife, Belinda, has developed a painful rash and is spending all her time in their stateroom. The Russians Paul encounters on the ship and also in Leningrad are at times lazy, dishonest, corrupt, overly informal, and have a habit of drinking too much. They are also imbued with a fervor for communism that is not unlike those who follow a particular religion with fanaticism. The religion cannot be questioned.
The tone of this book is humorous – Paul’s dentures becoming loose due to a Russian customs officer seizing the tube of his bonding agent, another male character donning a dress and attempting to get out of Russia using Paul’s wife’s passport, Paul’s continuous run in with a pair of bumbling Russian secret police.
There is also a sideplot about Paul finding out about Belinda having a lesbian affair and Paul himself struggling with sexuality as its revealed that he has some gay issues as well. All of this creates a crash bam narrative. This is Burgess’s fastest paced novel and it works because of the humor.
I would have liked more of an explanation for what was going on. However, it’s still an enjoyable read and never gets too heavy into Cold War politics although I did like the final question about the elusive nature of freedom. One of Burgess’s lighter books to be sure.