No two persons ever read the same book. --Edmund Wilson

Thursday, August 17, 2006

#75: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian -- Marina Lewycka

How did they live the rest of their lives with that terrible secret locked away in their hearts? How did they grow vegetables, and mend motor-bikes, and send us to school and worry about our exam results? ... But they did. (p.273)

This novel won the Bollinger Everyman Prize for Comic Fiction, and was described by The Economist as "uproariously funny". I don't get the joke.

The plot would certainly make a good sitcom. Nicolai, Kolya, is an engineer by trade, a Ukrainian emigre in his eighties, recently widowed: the narrator, Nadezhda (Nadia) is his younger daughter, in her forties and engaged in permanent Cold War with her older, richer, more glamorous sister Vera. One day Kolya announces that he's getting married, to a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee, Valentina. Valentina is thirty-six, has a son by her previous marriage and will stop at nothing (boil-in-the-bag meals, green satin underwear, physical and mental cruelty) in order to buy into her dream of Western wealth.

Vera and Nadia must join forces to get rid of the unsympathetic Valentina, despite their father's protests. And as they finally come to know one another better, tales of the past -- their family history -- interweave with the sordid tale of the Ukrainian gold-digger and her multiple husbands.

There is some fine writing in this novel (written in English, and not a translation: the author was born in a refugee camp of Ukrainian parents and grew up in England). But there is far too much tragedy for me, at least, to be able to sit back and laugh at the comic moments. Kolya is especially well-drawn: an elderly man, no longer really in control of his health or his life, bullied and confused but still sweet-tempered. He's working on that Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian: his world has contracted into a span of one room, but his mind still roams freely across the ploughed fields of the world (p.128). He doesn't tell Nadia the stories: it's mostly Vera who reveals, and conceals, the events that shaped their current lives.

"Mother was engaged to a submarine commander?"
"Didn't you know? He was the love of her life... Sometimes it's better not to know." With a snap, Big Sis closes the door to the past and turns the key. (p.123)

The novel is partly about the fusion of Ukrainian incomers and Middle England, but the dark core of it is the tale of the family's experiences during the Second World War, as captives in a German concentration camp. Nadia, born in 1947, is a child of freedom: Vera, ten years her senior, remembers the camp. See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries? (p. 236) Even at the end of the novel, a key event is unexplained. Nadia, though, has finally grown up, grown to accept her sister, grown to understand. When I was a child I wanted my father to be a hero... Now as an adult I see that they were not heroic. They survived, that's all. (p.311)

Is this novel supposed to be funny because the family are foreign, and -- especially in Kolya's case -- don't necessarily understand English law and custom? Or because Kolya is old and infirm and losing his mind? Or because Valentina is such a caricature? (Even she becomes human, gradually: and, before that, pitiable.)

A thought-provoking read, but not a comfortable or an especially enjoyable one. Perhaps, as the daughter of a recently-deceased emigre engineer who took up with a younger woman after my mother's death, I'm just a little too close to the subject matter to get the right perspective.


  1. I happened to hear part of this read on the BBC's World Service a while back, and I was struck by something – whether in the reading or the writing – which seemed desperate to co-opt me into identifying with the exasperation of the highly Anglicized daughters, determined not to be embarrassed by their father's behaviour and to make him conform to their notion of how life should be conducted. Whereas I saw the whole thing as tragic as much from their point of view, because they were running as hard from their own roots as their father was trying to hold onto his, and couldn't see that.

    As you say, not a comfortable book; which makes me wonder if the keenness to identify it as being comic arises from that need to giggle at a funeral because it's all too much to handle otherwise.

  2. Anonymous2:59 am

    This book certainly resonates with me. I'm from the same background, have a child with a Ukrainian immigrant woman (who left there 5 years ago)+ am being pushed to get married. I have the same problem with the old bread in the cupboards, dirt, rudeness, minimal cooking, sex avoidance, designer label clothing, status cars, private school and thoughtlessly wasting (my) money. Equally, she looks after our son well, has never told me a lie, has basic common sense and works successfully at dress designing/making with plenty of clients (keeps all the money + what I pay her less what she sends to her mother). As in the book the alternative is probably loneliness and I'm sure it wouldn't be good for the child for me to clear off.
    These are difficult questions.