The OF Blog: Johanna Sinisalo, The Blood of Angels

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Johanna Sinisalo, The Blood of Angels

The queen is dead.

She's lying in the entrance hole, delicate, fragile, her limbs curled up against her body.

I would recognize it as the queen just by the elongated lower body and clearly larger size compared to the worker bees, but there is also a little spot of colour on her back – I marked this female with yellow last year when I placed her in the nest.

Much too young to die.

And why had she left the nest to begin with?

I squeeze a puff from the smoker into the hive, but the bees don't come crawling out.  They should be languid, of course, fat and heavy with honey to protect from this imagined forest fire, but there's no movement at all at the entrance.

My heart is racing now.  I put down the smoker and pry the roof off the nest with a hive tool.  I put the roof on the ground and start lifting the honeycombs out of the box one by one and stacking them on top of it.

The workers are gone.

Every one of them. (p. 13)

After a while, post-apocalyptic stories can become rather wearisome to read.  There's a perfunctory explanation, usually some virus or super-pathogen or maybe a deliberate bio-chemical attack by some human group, followed by blah-blah-blah about the fragility of human civilization or how resilient humans truly are in a dire situation.  Even in the cases of a viral/microbe attack, the focus is not so much on how humans are just another animal species in an incredibly complex and interdependent ecosystem, but rather on human agency and how humans can overcome even their own proclivities for destruction.  It's just a bit too much to presume that any future collapse of human civilizations is going to be the central part of any biological calamity.

Therefore, it was with great interest that I ordered a copy of Finnish writer Johanna Sinisalo's The Blood of Angels.  Recently translated into English by Lola Rogers, it was my first time reading this acclaimed writer's fiction in novel format.  The Blood of Angels actively works against several of the presumptions I listed above that are found in other stories of collapse and disorder.  Set in contemporary Finland, it begins with an amateur beekeeper, Orvo, discovering that two of his hives have been abandoned inexplicably, with queens dead and the brood still encased in their protective layers.  Immediately, he think of three dread words that have been uttered more and more frequently by beekeepers worldwide:  Colony Collapse Disorder.

This, coupled with his grieving for the recent death of his eco-warrior son, Eero, leads Orvo to investigate matters further.  In an attic in a nearby barn, he makes a surprising discovery:  a pathway to a parallel world, one in which the slowly spreading ecological disaster caused by the near-total extinction of European honeybees and the resulting lack of pollination of thousands of plant species vital for vast swathes of human and animal food supply systems may have been checked.  As he explores this parallel world and its connection with bees, he discovers that in most societies, bees at one point or another have been viewed as half-mystical, half-divine messenger animals who had come to represent beliefs in an afterworld and in resurrection.

Sinisalo takes some bold chances here with how she structures the narrative.  Orvo's discoveries, taking place over roughly half a month, are interspersed with blog and journal entries from Eero that detail the important roles that bees play in life, both literally and metaphorically.  At times, Orvo's own narrative arc could have been disrupted or overshadowed by these fascinating recreations of actual research into bee life, but she carefully structures these interludes in a fashion that makes their contents serve as deepening echos of Orvo's chapters.  The result is a very scary look at a very possible near-future reality:  one in which mass malnutrition arises due to the inability to find a replacement for these rapidly dying off bee colonies.  Sinisalo's narrative, especially its blog entries, echoes almost too vividly the warnings in recent years about the actual spread of Colony Collapse Disorder and, in the short asides provided throughout Orvo's chapters, the calamities this causes for all creatures great and small.

The Blood of Angels is one of the best tales of Collapse that I have read this year.  It manages to avoid the egregious mistakes that most post-apocalyptic tales make in focusing overmuch on human agency as a cause and effect of these type of global disasters.  Through its well-constructed mixture of a grieving man's search through a parallel world for clues as to what happened to both his son and to the bees, as well as detailed yet never wearisome scientifically-based blog entries written by the now-dead son, Sinisalo invokes a creeping sense of disorder, one in which the collapse of the orderly bee colonies presages much more than a collapse of human societies.  She manages to maintain this atmosphere throughout The Blood of Angels, making this one of the best written and constructed narratives of Collapse published in English this year.


Nikki @ Book Punks said...

I just discovered her work and have Finnisches Feuer (don't have the original title at hand, that is the German title, hasn't been published in English...yet) and am really really excited about the things she is doing. Was really excited to see this review, particularly as collapse scenarios are one of my favorites. But as you say they can become very wearying. I often finish them thinking "IS THAT ALL WE CAN IMAGINE FOR A COLLAPSE SITUATION? SERIOUSLY?!?!?!?" So I am looking forward to this a LOT.

Larry Nolen said...

Now I'm tempted to import the German translation (even though my German is so rusty after nearly 20 years' disuse that it's worse than my French or Italian), as this one was very good. Scariest part is that if you've paid some attention to the news about bee colony collapses over the past decade, the book's societal collapse could be said to be transpiring right now.

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