A SHORT HISTORY OF TRACTORS IN UKRANIAN
Marina Lewycka

 


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Penguin, 2005
Reviewed by Joy Calderwood

Cambridgeshire, England

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 were funny.

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 Orange Prize.

Aug 2006

 

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