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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.