The Estonian writer Meelis Friedenthal (b.1973) has written a doctoral thesis at Tartu University on a 13th century philosophical-theological treatise about seeing and vision. Friedenthal has worked as lecturer in the faculty of theology and history and is currently working as a senior researcher in Tartu University Library. His current research topic is the intellectual history of the 17th century.
Friedenthal has earned a reputation as a speculative fiction writer, his first novel Golden Age is about the role of history in shaping our identity and won third place in a national novel competition in 2004. The following year, his story ‘Nerissa’ won an Estonian science fiction prize. He is also a member of the editorial board of the webzine Algernon, which publishes science fiction stories, news and articles. His latest novel The Bees depicts the end of the 17th century and is a bleak vision about the voyage and encounters of a student who has come from Leiden to Tartu. Friedenthal has also written an extensive postscript about the historical context of the events described in the novel.
Friedenthal describes the adventures of Laurentius Hylas, a student travelling from the University of Leiden to the Academia Gustavo-Carolina in Tartu, Livonia.
Laurentius arrives in Estonia and Livonia some years before the end of the 17th century, together with his parrot Clodia. The parrot’s sanguine temperament is supposed to help counteract the melancholia that affects Laurentius. Tartu has a reputation as a city of muses, but Laurentius sees starving people behind the city gates and feels the dampness of the houses. Thus, his melancholia worsens and he starts to suspect seeing again the ghosts which have haunted him from his childhood onwards. Laurentius begins to feel the black bile inside him piling up and slowly descends into a dreamlike disease where he is unable to differentiate reality from unreality.
Everything he eats tastes of mud and putrefaction, and he feels weaker and weaker every day. He tries to find some cure for his disease but only manages to arouse suspicion of witchcraft. He feels that the suspicion is somewhat justified as he believes that he is the bearer of an evil eye, with everybody who looks into his eyes falling ill or having some kind of accident.
Laurentius hears a professor talking about the medicinal theories of Boyle and follows his advice of moderate bloodletting to cure his condition. Unfortunately, the process does not work and Laurentius faints from loss of blood. In the haze of weakness he sees a girl who has, “eyes like gold, like the dark honey, her breathing like humming”. The girl offers him bread and, after that, Laurentius regains some of his strength. She starts appearing at night offering him more food and, later, Laurentius begins to discover that strange events are happening around him. He is unsure if it is possible to explain them naturally or supernaturally, as the competing philosophical theories he follows permit both.
It rained all the time. Rain had rotted the crops on the fields, had covered the wooden walls of the buildings with mold, had made ships' deck boards as sopping as seaweed. For already several months' time, Laurentius had been eating rotten bread, had been living in mildewed buildings, and in the last week, had also been sliding across the soggy deck of a ship. Black bile collected within him like sludge atop a stake driven into a riverbed. Now, he finally stepped from the lurching boat onto the harbor dock, onto the slippery boards nailed onto logs that were rammed into the mud beneath the water, and peered hesitatingly at his surroundings. The wind flung drizzle into his face in bursts from the low sky, and he strove to understand what sort of land it was, to which he had arrived by his own free choice. The bare, white sand and lone patches of reeds along the strip of shore, as well as the identical gray clouds very much resembled the harbor, from which he had set off. The mast of the post ship looked just the same against the gray sky, and the sheets that had been raised on it appeared just as gray and featureless as they had when he cast off. Next to the pier, which extended far out into the sea, a jetty buried halfway beneath the muddy water could be seen, and on top of it was an old watchman's house crouched down in the water, which no one had apparently used for already quite some time. These ruins could be found in every harbor, and despite their pitiful appearance, such an image rather instilled a sense of confidence in Laurentius for some reason. Here as well, the harbors had been rebuilt; here as well, they had been enlarged for new ships to dock, and the old watchmen's houses had been abandoned.
He sighed, and nervously adjusted the cover over the cage dripping with rainwater.
He had not been required to make all that much of an effort in bringing his paraphernalia along—one chest hammered together from oak planks fit what he had deemed necessary for bringing with him to school entirely. It was sent to customs together with the goods carried in the ship's hold, and he would apparently only receive it that evening. The ship's cargo—even its passengers' personal baggage—was looked through carefully, and anything at all that could be subject to a tax was written down. There was actually no real worry about that—Laurentius had nothing of great value in the chest; every one of his few personal books was also officially permitted, and he had taken along only the bare minimum of medicines. What posed a difficulty was actually the cage containing a rose-ringed parakeet.