Tuesday, May 31, 2005

tractors in ukrainian

I've just finished Marina Lewycka's 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian' - my holiday read - and really enjoyed it; it's the kind of book that inspires a sigh of relief after a few paragraphs. You think, "I'm going to like this". It's the story of a elderly Ukrainian who, to the horror of his grown-up daughters, decides to marry Valentina, a woman - 40 years his junior - from his homeland, so that she can obtain a UK passport and an 'Oxfordcambridge' education for her son. And so that he can revel in late-flowering love and her 'superior breasts'.

Of course, in the event, she proves to be a tyrant, the product of a post-Soviet Eastern Europe which scrambles for possessions and status. At first wholly unsympathetic, beating her frail husband and threatening to shorten his life, she emerges as a tragic figure of sorts. Even her husband's daughters - Nadia, the narrator, and Vera, her sister - come to admire this force of nature, this 'fluffy pink grenade' - although not before they have conspired to have the marriage annulled. For Nadia, the left-wing sociologist who has not, at the novel's opening, spoken to her older, infinitely more cynical sister for two years, the story brings about an understanding of her family's remarkable history, an uneasy truce with her sibling and - worst - a battle with her own desire to be 'understanding'. It is not long before she feels herself becoming 'Mrs Hang' Em and Flog 'Em'. Her sister watches approvingly.


The novel's tone is beautifully judged; Lewycka's prose is spare, readable and funny, if littered with stylistic tricks, and the linguistic interplay between the characters, ebbing and flowing between the pigeon-prose of the refugee and the narrator's articulate English, is delightful. In one wonderful scene, when Valentina attacks Nadia (calling her a "she-cat-dog-vixen-flesh-eating witch", no less), the narrator's language inexplicably reverts to it's Ukraininan-English roots. It's a funny moment in a very funny book. Nickolai, the father, is particularly good value, especially on the subject of Russians. When not involved in extricating himself from his disasterous marriage, he is writing a history of tractors; excerpts of which set up the novel's second theme - the uncovering of a personal history which takes in famine, war, imprisonment and no little suffering. Tractors, after all, led to tanks.

"I had thought this story was going to be a knockabout farce," Nadia says, "but now I see it is developing into a knockabout tragedy." These parallel stories seem occasionally to falter, particularly in the book's middle section (which sags a little), and in the penultimate chapter, which seeks to make painfully obvious what was elsewhere intelligently implied, but this is not a book which seeks to confuse or mystify, it is one which sets about revealing the complexities of family, politics and history.

It is both farce and tragedy, a simple story well told.

Buy the book here...

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