Reviewed by Joy Calderwood
Eighty-four year old Nikolai Mayevskyj crowns a feckless life by falling
for a busty blonde fifty years his junior. Valentina wants so much to
escape the Ukraine and live in the West that she is divorcing her fine
Ukrainian husband Mikhail Dubov. Nikolai is so anxious to rescue her that
he promises her every luxury, far more than his pension will cover.
Before Valentina arrives – before her divorce from Dubov is final –
Nikolai is worrying his daughters by sending Valentina large sums of money
he can’t afford. Nadezhda and Vera know a gold-digger when they see one,
even though they haven’t seen her yet. She is even worse than they expect,
beating and berating their father at every opportunity. The terrified
Nikolai must be forced to get rid of her before she kills him, even if it
means mending the feud between Nadezhda and Vera.
Nadezhda and Vera have nothing in common except contempt for their father.
But he is family. Nikolai has never been able to manage anything in life
except his engineering. Until two years ago he had their mother Ludmilla
to handle the details of living. Gradually Nadezhda’s narrative reveals
exactly how great Ludmilla’s achievement was.
No, A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRANIAN is not written in Ukranian.
Nikolai’s book about tractors is written in Ukranian. This novel is billed
as comedy shading into tragedy, but I suspect you have to be Ukranian to
get the jokes; they seem to be culturally referenced. I gave the
occasional humorous snort at Nadezhda’s ironic asides. Finally, about two
thirds of the way through, some things started happening that I thought
I had actually gotten interested in the book some time before that,
because Valentina is so horrible that I had a visceral need to see her
ousted. I didn’t find any of the characters likable until much later. They
do seem extremely true to life. I would have wondered if these events
actually happened, if it hadn’t been for the wandering viewpoints in this
supposedly first-person narrative. To me it was another moment of humor
when author Marina Lewycka acknowledged her family and friends “for
providing me with so much good material.”
If you enjoy reading about unpleasant people finding their way to better
lives, Marina Lewycka’s debut novel is for you. Nikolai’s family lived
through the man-made famine of Stalin and the Nazi prison camps. They
experienced outright heroism, routine sadism, and abject survival. We may
or may not like the individuals whose lives were blasted by ideology run
amok, but we can hope that such crimes will stop soon and never reoccur.
A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRANIAN was short-listed for the 2005
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