Translated by Laura Vergnand –A Book Review
by Renee Kimball
What started as a post about the use of “bees” as literary metaphor became something entirely different than I had first imagined. I searched for information, but kept coming back to The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai. More than metaphor, The Ardent Swarm stands as a statement about nature, life, human behavior and unwarranted invasion.
Bees have been in existence far longer than man, and as Joseph Campana states, “Without the Animal, there is no human” (2013). So, it is not surprising that bees as literary metaphor is found in the Bible, the Quran, Shakespeare, by scholars of the Renaissance (14th -17th centuries), and the Enlightenment (16th-17th centuries), to name only a few.
The Ardent Swarm is the poignant story of one man’s devotion, loss, resilience, and persistence. It is also a story of invasion, political unrest, and the power of nature to overcome. Other reviewers have called it both an “allegory,” and a “parable;” it contains a layer of spiritual associations, much like The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho, You feel the message between the lines; it gently leads the reader forward. The reader is better for having read it.
The central character of The Ardent Swarm, Sidi, is a beekeeper, but he is substantially more; Sidi is a subtle thinker, a principled patient man, a devoted lover of bees. Sidi’s hives are full of healthy honey-producing bees, bees Sidi calls “his girls”; they are his children. If necessary, Sidi would give his life to protect his children, his bees (p. 9). (Book cover photo, courtesy of Amazon).
The story begins with tragedy. One of Sidi’s hives is destroyed, his beloved bees eviscerated, slaughtered, while inside the hive, the queen and soldiers lie dead, all the honey has been removed to the last drop. Sidi collapses to the ground in overwhelming grief; he is beyond consolation. In spite of the enormous loss, Sidi vows to find the perpetrator of this destruction. There are answers waiting to be found, but for this story, there is no final solution; it is Nature or Spirit that will ultimately decide the outcome.
Sidi resides near the remote village of Nawa, Qatar. Qatar sits adjacent to the Persian Gulf, part of the Arabian Peninsula (World Atlas). Qatar is a country comprised of many small remote tribal villages scattered throughout the country. The villagers have no knowledge of formal government or politics; they have no running water or electricity. The people come from ancient tribal roots; their lives are far removed from the modern world.
Despite the villagers’ isolation, modernity comes in the guise of politics, world trade, natural gas, democracy, and empty promises; civil war soon follows. Qatar and Nawa are suddenly embroiled in political turmoil, outsiders breach the borders, the government is radically changed, and political parties fight for power; it is a terrifying time.
The setting of the novel alludes to an actual event that occurred in 2010, historically named the “Arab Spring”. During the Arab Spring, uprisings spread across the Arab states (Wikipedia). The people joined together to overthrow the many centuries old regimes, and in doing so, created diverse political factions causing widespread destruction and death. The fictional people of Nawa are also thrown into civil war, their way of life threatened by forces vying to control them.
In search of whatever or whoever destroyed his hive Sidi leaves the area for a brief time, traveling to the hills and mountains. While Sidi is absent, Nawa, is suddenly visited by political canvassers who distribute pamphlets, aggressively shout promises, and distribute gifts of free food and clothing to amazed villagers (p. 29).
Unable to find any evidence, Sidi returns to his hives, believing the murderer would return to kill again. Patient and steadfast, Sidi stands guard over the remaining hives, and his patience is finally rewarded. A giant hornet, black with red eyes, comes to the hive, then leaves. Soon, a group of the same kinds of hornets appear, swarm the remaining hive slaughtering more bees before Sidi, in protective clothing, can catch and crush them one by one. Managing to keep one hornet alive, Sidi carries the hornet into Nawa.
Asking if anyone has seen this specimen before, Sidi finds one villager who confirms he has seen similar wasps not too long ago. The villager takes Sidi to a shack that stores a shipping container; the crate’s labels say it was sent from Shaanxi, in Central China. The crate was brought by the political canvassers; it held the free clothes that were given to the villagers.
Unknown to everyone, a much darker gift came with the clothes–a large nest of Chinese hornets (also called Asian Hornets). The nest was there all along, within the crate, hidden under the clothes. When a curious villager opened the crate, several of the hornets flew out though the shack’s open window.
By the time Sidi was led to the crate and discovered the nest, too much time had passed. Exasperated, Sidi cut the nest open and found dried hornet larvae along with several hornet bodies, all dead and dried. Sidi knew that the escaped hornets were already in the countryside, acclimating and making nests, a disaster would eventually follow (p. 105-106).
Sidi had learned that nature could intervene, but in this case, he wasn’t sure. He had crossbred wild country bees with his domestic bees to ward off illness and parasites. He would find out more about these hornets, their habitats, and how they could be controlled and whether they could be crossbred to be less aggressive.
While Sidi does find a solution, it was not easy and was very risky. Without revealing the ending, suffice it to say the answer comes from Japan. Whether the approach Sidi takes is successful remains up to Nature. Like Sidi, we wait and hope for the survival of the hive.
The Ardent Swarm is more than a metaphor of bees and society torn by war; it is a metaphor for the destruction of Ukraine. It is a metaphor for unanticipated, unwarranted destruction from an outside and aggressive source. Just like Sidi’s hive, we wait and hope that Nature wins to modify the aggressive genetic makeup of the Asian hornet; with Ukraine, we hope the better nature of the world intervenes to stop Russia’s destruction of the Ukrainian people–we pray and we wait.
And thy Lord taught the Bee
to build its cells in hills
on trees, and in [men’s] habitations;
Then to eat of all
the produce of [the earth],
and find with skill the spacious
Paths of its Lord: there issues
from within their bodies
a drink of varying colours,
wherein is healing for men:
verily in this is a Sign
for those who give thought
Quran, “The Bee,” 16:68-69
Quoted from The Ardent Swarm: A Novel by Yamen Manai,
The U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the National Invasive Species Information Center, identified the presence of the Asian Hornet (Scientific name: Vespa mandarinia, named by Smith, 1852) in 2019, in Washington State. It is an invasive species that arrived in the U.S. through an unknown source. Under “impact” assessment, the USDA stated the Asian Hornet can cause “the complete loss of Honeybee colonies” (National Invasive Species Information Center. U.S. Department of Agriculture). https://www.invasivespeciesinfo.gov/terrestrial/invertebrates/asian-giant-hornet
USDA’s Cutting-Edge Methods Help Deliver a Victory Against Asian Giant Hornet
Posted by Greg Rosenthal, Communications Specialist, USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service in Animals. Aug 16, 2021
“. . . After weeks of searching, Washington State Department of Agriculture (WSDA) entomologists–—using a radio tag provided by USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service and a trap developed by the USDA’s Agricultural Research Service–— have located and eradicated the first Asian giant hornet (AGH) nest ever found in the United States. For months, WSDA had been trying to find the nest they knew must exist near Blaine, WA, because of AGH detections in the area. But finding the nest proved extremely challenging since the hornets build nests in forested areas, typically in an underground cavity. . .”
The Ardent Swarm by Yamen Manai, Lara Vergnaud (Translator). Originally published in French. Published February 1st 2021 by Amazon Crossing (first published April 11th 2017).
Campana, Joseph. Manimals: Early Modern Animal/Human Interfaces. The bee and the sovereign? Political entomology and the problem of scale. The Free Library. https://www.thefreelibrary.com/The+bee+and+the+sovereign%3F+Political+entomology+and+the+problem+of…-a0349721049
Arab Spring. Wikipedia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arab_Spring
Photo of book cover, courtesy of Amazon.
Photos of flowers, bees and nest, courtesy of Pixabay.
A former paralegal, Renee Kimball has a master’s degree in criminal justice. Among her interests are research, reading, and writing. She is working on a novel set during the time of the Roman Republic.