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[132] A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian – Marina Lewycka

Booker Reading Challenge #2 / Russian Reading Challenge #4

” ‘No car! No jewel! No clothes! (She pronounces it in two syllables–cloth-es) No cosmetic! No undercloth-es!’ She yanks up her t-shirt top to display those ferocious breasts bursting like twin warheads out of an underwired, ribbon-strapped, lycra-panelled, lace-trimmed green satin rocket-launcher of a bra.” (99)

Two years after his wife passed away, Nikolai Mayevskyj, who has always harbored fantasies of rescuing destitute Ukraianians, fell in love with a glamorous blonde. Nikolai was 84 and Valentina was 36. It surely doesn’t take long for anyone to realize that their rush marriage was out of convenience. The old man was also aspired to foster her son who claimed to have an IQ of a genius. On top of the 1800 pounds that she inveigled him for plastic surgery, of which he was very evasive, Valentina pulled her wits’ end to eke out as much money as she could from the gulliable old man who, despite his unquenchable lust, did truly take sympathy of her.

In light of the Ukrainian women’s exploding into the house like a fluffy pink grenade, the feuding sisters, Vera and Nadia, put aside their quarrels to disentangle their emigre father from this gold-digging divorcee (she recently divorced her husband and came to England with her son on a travel visa). Together the sisters collected evidence and petitioned to court for an injunction that would kick her out of the house, and reported to Home Office the absence of a genuine marriage. Foreseeing that she would lose the appeal on a rejected visa renewal, and perhaps hearing the distant tinkle bell of money in a divorce settlement, the cunning Valentina changed tack. She eavesdropped his conversation and photocopied legal correspondence between Nickolai and his solicitor. Her goal was to avoid at all costs giving him grounds for divorce in order to buy time to prove somehow he is ill or of an unsound mind. Then she would be able to collect settlement benefits.

In this enthralling novel, or even better, social commentary, family life has never been more dysfunctional and funnier than a modern comedy of manners. Behind the laughter and ridicule of the racy pursuit of marriage benefits–the Rolls Royce, the Lada, halving the house–lays a deeper issue about the nature of human spirit. Is human spirit always selfish and mean? Is the only impulse to preserve itself? Does human spirit have no room for pure sentimentality? Even if human spirit is noble and generous, like that of Nikolai, would it be strong enough to withstand all the meanness and selfishness in the world? The battle with immigration bureaus also rings the truth about how globalization might have delivered the deception that everyone in the West is rich and wealthy. Valentina is greedy, outrageous and predatory–whom no one would have a tinge of sympathy, but consider if we are in her shoe, wouldn’t we also jump into the first opportunity for prosperity?

Interleaved in the novel is a history of tractors in Ukranian written by the old man, who was a former engineer. It’s about the battle of wills of all the participants shaped by their own pasts through Eastern European history. Digging out the pasts and the different historical and political period in which the two sisters were raised, the novel contrasts the different outlook in the sisters’ appraoch to thwarting the gold-digger’s ambitions.

12 Responses

  1. One of my favourite passages in the book was the scene where the sisters recall a rich lady trying to give money to their mother. It set them on their chosen paths in life: one became the socialist, the other became the rich lady.

    All that they have experienced culminate in this single, pivotal moment – and they are defined by it forever.

  2. This is one I’ve skimmed at the bookstore, held onto, put back on the shelf, picked up again, etc. I just need to buy a copy and read it as it sounds like a great book. Hope the interviewing is going well!!

  3. I was a bit torn with this book… There were parts I really enjoyed and found funny, especially in the beginning, but then I felt a bit sad. I didn’t like Valentina not so much because she was greedy but because the poor man was really suffering. I’m still not sure what to think of it.
    I’d be curious to read more by this author.

  4. I did the same thing Greg did–picked it up and flipped through it but left it on the shelf. The opening pages were cracking me up! Now that you have recommended it I should go back and give it a go!

  5. I really enjoyed this book but it attracted a lot of criticism among some of my ‘literary’ friends in the UK for being a bit lightweight. To me, though, it balanced lightness brilliantly with serious points like care for the elderly – Lewycka is an expert in this area, having written several books for the charity Age Concern.

    Having said all that, I wasn’t at all tempted to read her second novel Two Caravans (which I think might be called Strawberry Fields or something like that in other parts of the world), which is odd as it’s a sympathetic account of immigration and the UK could do with more of those.

  6. Dark Orpheus:
    Kids always have these defining, and pivotal moments in their life. It’s amazing how much we could have grown become who we are due to a small incident like the one described in the book. It’s very well-written book.

  7. Greg:
    You’ll enjoy this one. Go get it, quick! 🙂

    iliana:
    Valentina to me reflects a social problem. The reality is sad especially when we’re talking about thousands of Valentinas who try to get out of a country that cannot even offer basic necessity.

  8. John:
    The opening chapters are explosively hilarious, but it only gets better with the way she deals with the difference in the sisters’ social scope. It’s very well-written. Hope you enjoy reading it. 🙂

    John Self:
    The balance between its lightness and serious social reality is just perfect.

  9. […] 16. A Russian Affair, Anton Chekov Tentative List 1. A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr 2. A Shorty History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka 3. The Gathering, Anne […]

  10. […] 16. A Russian Affair, Anton Chekov Tentative List 1. A Month in the Country, J.L. Carr 2. A Shorty History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka 3. The Gathering, Anne Enright 4. The White Tiger, Aravind […]

  11. […] A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction. In spring 2008, when I was on a trip home, in Hong Kong, I was at a dinner party hosted by my friend James. A friend of his, who is a literary bluff, came with a gift for him: a trade paperback copy of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. Judging by the title alone, it’s not a book I would have picked up at the bookstore. The title suggests non-fiction, which is not usually my cup of tea, let alone tractors in Uk- what? Of course, nothing is more solid than word-of-the-mouth recommendation. I was on it the very next day: to secure a copy of this viciously hilarious novel by a woman whom I have never heard of. It tells of feuding sisters who put aside their quarrels to disentangle their emigre father from a Ukrainian gold-digging divorcee named Valentina. It’s a dysfunctional family spinning out of control. The copy I acquired was a special edition by Penguin UK. It belongs to a series called Penguin Celebrations. The series consists of light blue (for big ideas), green (for mystery), orange (for fantastic fiction), pink (for distant land), dark blue (for real lives) and purple (for viewpoints). The damage at the cashier of PageOne Books was HK$95.30, which translates to USD 12.29. […]

  12. […] A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is a wonderful farce that I enjoyed tremendously. An 84-year-old widower fell in love with a 36-year-old gold-digging blonde named Valentina. Valentina pulled her wits’ end to eke out as much money as she could from the gulliable old man who, despite his unquenchable lust, did truly take sympathy of her. […]

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