Picture this: you’re 47 years old, with a family and a plum job as a Sociology lecturer at a fancy university. Your mother has sadly passed away, but you still have your father (84 years of age, and fighting fit aside from the occasional fit of… ahem, fecal incontinence). There’s also your older sister, Vera, who’s divorced and tried to royally screw you over with your mother’s will, so you really don’t have much to do with her anymore. Then, one day, the phone rings: your father is calling to tell you he’s fallen in love with a 36 year old Ukrainian blonde bombshell who wears green satin knickers, and they’re getting married. That’s the situation Nadezhda finds herself in, and the premise of the bizarrely-named A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian.
I assume, based on Marina Lewycka’s author bio, that at least some aspects of her debut novel are autobiographical. She, like her protagonist, was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp at the end of WWII, and grew up in England. Her resume includes a post teaching at Sheffield Hallam University, and she is married with an adult daughter.
Still, one would hope that she’s exaggerating for comic effect. When Nadezhda and Vera try to put aside their years-long feud to save their father from Valentina (the voluptuous gold-digger), they hit more than a few bumps in the road. Their campaign to oust the much-younger bride unearths all manner of family secrets, and not the cute mother-had-an-affair-with-the-milkman kind. Nadezdha has to reckon with all kinds of trauma that she was too young (at the time) to remember properly for herself, including her family’s struggle to survive the Ukrainian famine and Stalin’s purges. Unfortunately, Vera remembers all too well, but she’s reluctant to share…
Lewycka offsets these huge bummers in the plot by offering us humorous theatrics, melodramatics, and soap-opera-worthy family bust-ups. There’s nothing sentimental or wistful about A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian: think more an over-the-top pantomime than gritty realism. The intergenerational trauma of war, poverty, and fear are ever-present (in Vera and Nadezhda’s mother’s insistence, for example, on accumulating non-perishable food, a hangover from her young life of famine and scarcity), but they co-exist with Bridget Jones-esque family squabbles and “wonderfully absurd” moments of farce.
Still, despite Lewycka’s best attempts, I still found A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian to be far more sombre than I had expected – more akin to a book like The Eighth Life. Maybe it’s just harder to find the funny these days than it was back when the book was first published, in 2005. Valentina abuses her husband physically and psychologically, she is grossly manipulative and cruel, and I just couldn’t make the leap to letting elder abuse tickle my funny bone. Plus, the bureaucratic nightmare of dealing with immigration authorities had me reaching for a bottle of wine. Maybe it’s a case of bad timing, or maybe this story just hasn’t aged well… it’s hard to tell.
What I did like was the strange use of paragraph breaks, which made the whole story feel slightly off-kilter. The sudden pauses changed the emphasis of each exchange, in a way that made me pause myself to properly think about what was going on in the story (like listening to a song in 7:8 time). Oh, and it takes its bizarre title from a book-within-a-book – the father’s treatise on (you guessed it!) the history of tractors – so you do literally get a short history of the significance of tractors (though it’s translated from Ukrainian into English, for the reader’s convenience).
Speaking of translation: A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian has now been translated into over 27 languages, including Russian and Ukrainian (though, apparently, a few Ukrainian reviewers were really unhappy with the book and the way it represented their country and people – Ukrainian novelist Andrey Kurkov called it a “banal tale” that would not teach anyone anything about Ukrainian migrant communities in Britain, burn!). Those criticisms aside, Lewycka won the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize in 2005, the U.K.’s only formal literary award for comic literature (for which the winner receives “a jeroboam of Champagne Bollinnger Special Cuvee and 52 volumes of the Everyman Wodehouse edition and a Gloucestershire Old Spots pig named for the winning novel).
I’m not sure I found it champagne-and-books-and-a-pig funny, but it was a fairly entertaining read. I’d recommend A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian for when you want your multi-generational epic compacted, and served with a spoonful of sugar.
My favourite Amazon reviews of A Short History Of Tractors In Ukrainian:
- “Very much enjoyed the actual history of the tractor and the history related to WWII, but found the story of the nonagenarian and the buxom 30-something Ukrainian a bit silly.” – Shirley Mauss
- “Get on with it for God’s sake. This book resembles a Star Trek time vortex episode where the same scene is played over and over and over and over again without conclusion. The daughter visits the father, fights with him and his new wife, vows not to return, next chapter, daughter visits father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits her father, fights with his new wife, vows not to return. Next chapter, daughter visits father’s house, fights with father and his new wife, vows not to return. Enough already.” – bigsnickers
- “The book is nice.” – Kelly You