“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”
So begins Marina Lewycka’s debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Published in 2005, it won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize at the Hay literary festival, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize and short-listed for the Orange Prize for Fiction. It’s been translated into 35 languages and in 2008 it was included in 1001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. If I’d had that edition I would almost certainly have included it in my collection of reviews, I’ll Read That For You: a bluffer’s guide to 101 books you should read before you die.
The thing about best-book lists is that they get updated every couple of years or so, and, as new books are always being written, every time you add a book you have to delete one. The 2010 edition of 1001 Books etc. replaced Lewycka’s novel with The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao by Junot Diaz. Diaz won the Pulitzer for that book and I’m sure it deserved a place on the best-book list, but if I’d been a member of the selection committee, I’d have fought tooth-and-nail to keep Lewycka and drop something else – maybe something by Henry James? Four of his are on the list and God knows he’s had a good long run on the must-read literary canon. Bring back Lewycka!
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a darkly comic domestic tale that will feel familiar to anyone who grew up experiencing resentment towards an older sibling. Or a younger one, for that matter. Nadezhda/Nadia, the narrator, and her older sister, Vera, have not spoken for two years, not since their mother’s funeral. When their father, Nikolai, lets it be known he is planning to marry an attractive but blatantly opportunistic immigrant with “superior” breasts and an “extraordinarily gifted” son, the sisters are forced to join forces to prevent him from making what appears to be a fatal mistake. Their rage against Valentina, the bride-to-be, unites them.
Valentina has entered the UK on a tourist visa and she is determined to stay there, whatever it takes, for as long as it takes. The fact that her future bridegroom is old enough to be her grandfather, is physically unlikely to be able to satisfy her sexually, and lives on a pension is all beside the point. As is the fact that Valentina may or may not still be married to her former husband and may or may not be planning to leave Nikolai once they are married in order to live with someone else. None of this will get in the way of her obtaining her British passport. She may be uneducated, her tastes may be tawdry, but she’s more than a match for the sisters and you can’t help admiring her sheer audacity.
In writing this novel, Lewycka has drawn on her own Ukrainian heritage. Born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, shortly after the Second World War, she grew up in England and was a lecturer at Sheffield Hallam University until she retired in 2012. In an interview she gave a few years ago, she admitted that she never gave much thought to her Ukrainian roots while growing up. Like most children of new immigrants, she was too busy trying to adapt and fit in. Her parents, wanting to shield her, didn’t talk to her about their wartime experiences; however, a few years before her mother died, Lewycka did have a conversation with her about those events. She recorded it on tape, planning to make it the basis of a novel some day.
“In the end,” she says, “I wrote a different novel, but my mother’s story is in there, threaded in among all the other stories. The descriptions of Ukraine are based on the stories my mother told me about her childhood. To me, the country was always like the ‘blue remembered hills,’ a place of mythical beauty. Of course, like all myths, it owes much to the imagination—both hers and mine.”
In the novel, the mother, Ludmilla, is remembered with an affection that feels very much grounded in reality. While listening with half an ear to her father lecturing her husband in the other room, Nadia makes her mother’s soup:
“The secret of my mother’s fabulous soup was plenty of salt (they both suffered from high blood pressure), a big knob of butter (they didn’t worry about cholesterol), and vegetables, garlic, and herbs fresh from the garden. I cannot make soup like this.”
The harshest condemnation of Valentina, more than the cheap makeup and the too-revealing clothes, is the fact that she doesn’t cook. She heats up “boil in the bag” dinners in the microwave; that Nikolai would fall for such a woman feels to Nadia like the greatest betrayal of her mother.
The novel was received with mixed reviews when it came out, particularly by some Ukrainians who felt it was an attack on their country. In a review in The Guardian newspaper, Andrey Kirkov called it “banal” and said it would not contribute to an understanding of the Ukrainian community in Britain. He’s certainly entitled to his opinion, but that’s a little like saying P G Wodehouse didn’t contribute to a greater understanding of the English upper classes when he wrote Jeeves and Wooster. One would answer, “Yes, you’re right. And your point is. . . ?”
I don’t mean to be flippant. I just think that humour, in its many forms, should be celebrated, especially at a moment like this. I would also like to add that through Nikolai’s passion project, which is writing an eccentric but informative chronicle of the development of the tractor, the reader is given a course in the social and political history of Ukraine since the Russian revolution. We are reminded that between seven and ten million people died across Ukraine during the man-made famine of 1932–1933. And we are impressed once again, as we are today, with the resilience, tenacity, and courage of the Ukrainian people.
Lewycka, Marina. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Penguin Publishing Group.