This review contains plot spoilers.
Ernst Junger is best-known for his “In Stahlgewittern” (“Storm of Steel”), a literary account of the time he spent serving in World War I. Almost four decades later in 1957, he published this novel, one of the dozens he wrote during his life, and one of the better pieces of dystopian fiction I’ve read. The translation by Louise Bogan deserves special praise for its effortlessness and attention to detail. So often translating pieces like this can produce something derivative, banal, and tasteless, but the opposite is true here. Her work as a poet (she was the Poet Laureate from 1945-1946) brought its subtlety to bear on this wonderful novel.
“The Glass Bees” isn’t what you’d call action-packed: its entire plot consists of a down-and-out man named Richard trying to find a job, speaking with his friend who might have an inside lead, and the job interview that results, interspersed with quite a few flashbacks to Richard’s military days. The central character, however, is neither Richard nor his friend, but the magus-like Zapparoni who runs the factory where Richard goes for his interview. Zapparoni lives in seclusion and runs his operations, including the production of anthropomorphic robots that star in the films that he produces, and the titular glass bees of the title. Everything Zapparoni makes require such skill, attention to detail, and artisanship that he stocks his factory with hundreds of workers who are utterly devoted to him. He has a charismatic ability to manipulate the people who work for him and perhaps a demonic desire to change the world through the transformative power of technology.
While waiting for Zapparoni to conduct his interview, he waits in a garden outside the factory, and his senses are gradually overwhelmed by Zapparoni’s meticulously constructed glass bees, replete with hundreds of infinitely complex miniscule parts. They put him in a trance that renders him unable to tell anything about his surroundings. After this bizarre experience, Richard resolves to not take a job at Zapparoni’s factory, thinking that he might use his power for something other than good, but ends up changing his mind and taking a position as a sort of ombudsman, helping the often querulous workers get over their artistic differences. In the end, though, we are left hanging. We never find out whether Richard would live to regret his decision, or whether retains his personal integrity and freedom of conscience.
Junger was often accused of being a fascist, and it’s really no surprise reading this book, but not for the reasons one might think: other than his sweet, evocative remembrances of military life before Zapparoni, Junger never recommends authoritarianism, antiparliamentarianism, or the cult of the leader. But some fascists were known for their deep, agonistic mistrust of technology and innovation, so far that they idealized the pastoral, rustic idyll of life before industrialization. There are so such idylls here, but Junger does have a distinctly suspicious stance toward technology and the mesmeric power that it can exert over people. He probably would have seen the advent of people simultaneously attached to their Blackberry, iPhone, iPod, and Bluetooth as unfortunate but inevitable. For being over half a century old, Junger’s technological anxieties are brilliantly articulated. His bees and his robots are progenitors of the nanotechnology that is so inescapable today. “A happy century does not exist,” Junger write. As someone who saw World War I and almost the entire twentieth century - he died in 1998 about a month before his 103rd birthday. But, he adds with a humane caution, “But there are moments of happiness, and there is freedom in the moment.” Words to dulcify a looming Technopolis.