I recently finished A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, by Marina Lewycka, which turned out to be a fun, if occasionally frustrating, read. I began it on vacation — it seemed like the perfect vacation book — and finished it shortly afterward. And it was the perfect vacation book, fast-paced, funny, entertaining.
First the good things: the characters are lively, the writing is interesting, quirky, and amusing, and the story absorbing. The novel tells the story of two sisters, Nadia and Vera, and their father, Nikolai, all from Ukraine and now living in England. The father, at 84 years old, has met Valentina, a 30-something woman and also from Ukraine, and fallen in love. Valentina, it seems clear, is interested in the relationship for self-serving reasons: she wants to stay in England. The plot centers around the sisters’s efforts to keep their father from marrying Valentina, and then trying to get him to extricate himself from the marriage once he has done so. Vera and Nadia (the story is told from Nadia’s perspective) have a rocky relationship; they have fought bitterly over their mother’s legacy and had not seen each other for a number of years because of their anger. So we read about their attempts to tolerate and begin to understand each other as they unite to help save their father. Valentina, it turns out, is their worst nightmare — unscrupulous, conniving, obsessed with money, and, at least in their father’s estimation, beautiful. This comes from Nadia’s perspective:
Then I see her — a large blonde woman, sauntering down the garden towards us on high-heeled peep-toe mules. Her gait is lazy, contempuous, as though she can barely be bothered to stir herself to greet us. A denim mini-skirt rides high above her knees; a pink sleeveless top stretches around voluptuous breasts that bob up and down as she walks. I stare. Such a wanton expanse of dimpled, creamy flesh. Plump bordering on fat … The mouth curls into a pout that is almost a sneer, drawn in pale peach-pink lipstick that extends beyond the line of the lips, as though to exaggerate their fullness.
Valentina is more than a match for Vera and Nadia and the battles they fight are merciless.
The novel is not all comedy, however, for the other part of the story is their dark family history, especially their experiences in World War II. Nadia, the younger daughter, pieces together the family history by pestering her reluctant older sister for information. It’s a dark history — of suffering under Stalin’s senseless and cruel policies, of hunger, of laboring in a German camp, of separation, of abuse. We get bits of the story interspersed throughout the comic sections of the novel, and this history adds weight and depth to the character’s experiences. Nikolai, the father, is writing a history of tractors in Ukraine (which explains the novel’s title) and through that history tells of the inventiveness and ingenuity as well as the suffering of Ukrainians.
We see how this history has shaped the characters’ present-day selves, particularly in the conflict between Vera and Nadia; in response to her history, Vera has become cynical and angry and mistrustful, and has become an unrepentant capitalist and individualist. Nadia, on the other hand, has a softer side. As much as she hates the harm Valentina is wreaking on her father, she respects the energy and determination she sees in her. She flirted with Communism in her younger years, much to her father’s distress, given his personal tragic experience with it, and now has settled into a quieter socialism. She is a Sociology professor, but Vera pointedly keeps referring to her as a social worker, expressing her disdain of Nadia’s profession and social ideals. The sisters spar continually, as in this passage, where the they discuss more recent immigrants:
“When we first came here, Vera, people could have said the same things about us — that we were ripping off the country, gorging ourselves on free orange juice, growing fat on NHS cod-liver oil. But they didn’t. Everyone was kind to us.”
“But that was different. We were different.” (We were white, of course, for one thing, I could say, but I hold my tongue.) “We worked hard and kept our heads down. We learned the language and integrated. We never claimed benefits. We never broke the law.”
“I broke the law. I smoked dope. I was arrested at Greenham Common. Pappa got so upset that he tried to catch the train back to Russia.”
“But that’s exactly my point, Nadia. You and your leftish friends — you never really appreciated what England had to offer — stability, order, the rule of law. If you and your kind prevailed, this country wold be just like Russia — bread queues everywhere, and people getting their hands chopped off.”
“That’s Afghanistan. Chopping hands off is the rule of law.”
“What I appreciated about growing up in England was the tolerance, liberalism, everyday kindness.” (I drive home my point by wagging my finger in the air, even though she can’t see me.) “The way the English always stick up for the underdog.”
“You are confusing the underdog with the scrounger, Nadia. We were poor, but we were never scroungers. The English people believe in fairness. Fair play. Like cricket.” (What does she know about cricket?) “They play by the rules. They have a natural sense of discipline and order.”
“No, no. They’re quite anarachic. They like to see the little man stick two fingers up to the world. They like to see the big shot get his come uppance.”
“On the contrary, they have a perfectly preserved class system, in which everyone knows where they belong.”
See how we grew up in the same house but lived in different countries?
Here is where the book excels: in its portrayal of the different ways people respond to the past and make sense of their history.
I was troubled, however, by some of the novel’s gender dynamics. The sister’s fight over whether their father deserves any sympathy for having fallen in love with some a young woman, and this becomes a fight over whether men can “help themselves” in the presence of a beautiful woman. This passage is an exchange between Nadia and her husband Mike; Mike says:
“But you can see it’s doing him good, this new relationship. It’s breathed new life into him. Just goes to show you’re never too old for love.”
“You mean for sex.”
“Well, maybe that as well. Your Dad is just hoping to fulfil every man’s dream — to lie in the arms of a beautiful younger woman.”
“Every man’s dream?”
That night Mike and I sleep in separate beds.
There is much sparring along these lines, feeding into stereotypes of men’s inability to control their sexuality and the need for women to patiently bear with their weakness. The women are often stereotypes as well, especially Valentina, who embodies the “femme fatale” figure perfectly. The author leads us to laugh at all this, but never critiques it and never asked us to question. Nadia objects occasionally to all the stereotypical behavior going on around her, but these objections are weak, and ultimately she learns to laugh with all the others and to stop being so difficult.
However, while I would wish to change the novel’s gender dynamics, I did find pleasure in reading this, particularly in the way Lewycka charts the relationship of past and present and the wildly different ways the characters make sense of what has happened to them.