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A Short History of Tractors in UkrainianReview - A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian
A Novel
by Marina Lewycka
Penguin, 2005
Review by Tony O'Brien
Nov 7th 2006 (Volume 10, Issue 45)

This is one of those books that comes preceded by its reputation. Nominated for the Booker, shortlisted for the Orange prize; expectations are high. As if that were not enough, the title is as intriguing as you are likely to find. A short history of tractors in Ukrainian is a novel that weaves together themes of family history, war and peace, sibling rivalry, social history, the development of tractors, and at the centre, a story about an old man's final fling before settling for the limitations of old age. That's a heady mixture, and first time novelist Lewycka does a more than passable job of weaving these diverse strands together into a warm and entertaining narrative.

Nikolai is eighty four, an immigrant to England from the Ukraine. As the novel opens his wife of sixty years has just died, and Nikolai has taken up with a younger, much younger, woman, the voluptuous Valentina, a large bosomed blonde who "exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade." Besotted by his new love, Nikolai is blind to her scheming and manipulations, and deaf to the pleas of his middle aged daughters who, quite rightly, can see nothing but trouble. What follows is a series of tragicomic adventures involving a cast of characters who would be at home on a pantomime stage. Besides the two sisters (Nadia the dewy-eyed socialist, Vera the cynical Thatcherite) there's Bald Ed the barman, former aircraft engineer Eric Pike, Valentina's Ukrainian husband Dubov and son Stanislav, and the deeply suspicious† Mrs Zadchuk. You wouldn't want lot this lot together in a room, but as the novel reaches its climax that possibility looms large.

Valentina is the seductress from hell. If badly applied makeup wasn't enough, she taunts, she flaunts, she wears green satin underwear. With apologies to American readers, I couldn't get the image of Coronation Street's truly dreadful Cilla out of my head. Lewycka reminds us more than once of Valentina's "superior Botticellian breasts", contrasted with the flat chests of Nikolai's daughters. The true object of Valentina's desire is a British passport, and there is not a lot she won't do to get it. When Nikolai marries her, any hope of wedded bliss dissolves in the steam from one of Valentina's acrid boil-in-the-bag meals.

The intersecting themes of the story allow Lewycka to digress into the war time and postwar history of the Ukraine, and her parents' struggle to survive and then make a life for themselves in a foreign land. The sisters have had very different lives and seem to scarcely know each other, but the unfolding drama that is their father's life brings them together, and allows Nadia (and readers) to learn of a past that has been all but buried.†† Nikolai's obsession with tractors (he is writing a historical survey which he reads in page size chunks to Nadia's husband) provides another sideline.

Although the story is both melodramatic and farcical, even the insufferable Valentina is shown to have human qualities that despite her appalling behavior allow the reader to develop a degree of empathy for her. In the dialogue between Vera and Nadia we learn of the individual and collective suffering of the Ukrainian people under Stalin, then Hitler, then Stalin again. The humorously rendered account of Nikolai's follies are not enough to mask the trauma of war and persecution; amongst the groping of breasts and digressions about Ukrainian engineering, Lewycka is making some serious points about political persecution. The humanity of her characters, even if at times they are somewhat stereotyped, prevents the book becoming mired in political preaching.

Lewycka's writing is workmanlike, although not elegant. There are a number of self conscious declarations to the reader, numerous parenthetic asides, and at times somewhat strained descriptions. But the story is engaging, even moving. Lewycka makes clever use of the mangled syntax of the non-native speaker of English, no doubt drawing on her own experience of hearing members of the Ukrainian community struggle for the right word or phrase, or simply make up their own hybrid, often to comical effect.† ††††

A short history of tractors in Ukrainian is something of a page turner. Lewycka is not one to dwell on single events, or to construct long monologues that slow her story down. Perhaps the extracts from Nikolai's improbable history of tractors are a little in that vein, but at least they are laced with historical references and Nikolai's homespun political commentary. Cynics refer to books that are "too good for the Booker". I'm not sure that A short history of tractors in Ukrainian is in that category, but it is easy to see why it caught the judges' attention. Well worth a read, and I'll be interested to see where Lewycka goes with her next novel.

 

© 2006 Tony O'Brien

 

Tony O'Brien is a short story writer, and lecturer in mental health nursing at the University of Auckland, New Zealand: a.obrien@auckland.ac.nz


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