A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Two years after his wife Ludmilla dies, Nikolai calls his daughter Nadezhda (Nadia) with the news that he is planning to remarry, to a thirty-six year old Valentina, a Ukrainian immigrant with golden hair, charming eyes, and superior breasts. The fact that Valentina is still married and only wishes to marry eighty-four year old Nikolai to stay in England does not matter, he is caught up in saving this woman from the home country. Worried that he is being taken advantage of by the voluptuous gold digger, Nadia calls her sister Vera, putting aside years of bitter rivalry to rescue their father from his Big Ideas and the sexy Valentina. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian looks at sibling rivalry, the conflicts between east and west, the status of immigrants, family, aging and the tricky nature of memory.
It is difficult to ascertain how one should approach this first novel by Marina Lewycka. Reading the description, readers could be excused for assuming that this will be a farce about a December – May romance between a randy senior citizen and an upstart new immigrant. And readers wouldn’t be that wrong, for the early pages of Lewycka’s novel are filled with farcical aspects: the image of the dyed blonde fiancée sitting on her octogenarian groom’s knees, letting him fondle her superior breasts immediately leaps to mind.
However, this is also a serious novel about family relationships and conflict: about relations between immigrants and their children; the effects of a post-war mentality on one’s view of the world; abuse on both a personal and political scale; and about conflicting ideologies and political states. How then to balance the two sides of this novel? Can they work together to create a cohesive whole?
Like Mary Poppins told us as children: “a spoonful of sugar makes the medicine go down.” By tying her serious messages up in an entertaining package, Lewycka can make some incisive comments on long-lasting consequences of abuse and certain political systems. Vera represents the asylum seeker and the immigrant, suffering from the post-war mentality, desperate for the luxuries of the west and believing in the superiority of capitalism to provide security. Nadia represents the child born in freedom, able to live and be idealistic, to work to save the world and make it a better place. Vera believes that Nadia “can afford the luxury of irresponsibility because she’s never seen the dark underside of life.” Nadia believes that Vera “is out to feather her own nest, and doesn’t understand the value of hard work.” These fundamental differences between sisters represent the central conflict vividly presented within A Short History.
Valentina, although portrayed as a money-grubbing wanton, willing to do anything and take advantage of anyone to be able to stay in England, should in some ways be seen as a sympathetic character. Nikolai forgives her anything, blaming it on the “post-war” mentality: “Clearly this Valentina, she is of quite different generation... In times of the Brezhnev, everyone’s idea was to bury all gone-by things and to become like in West…New desires must be implanted as fast as old ideals must be buried... It is not her fault; it is the post war mentality.” Valentina is a victim of the horrors she herself experienced however she carries her rage forward and visits it on others. Nikolai and Vera, also victims of violence, seem to expect such treatment.
This raises an important question: if one lives through violence and abuse in an institutionalized manner (that is from the leadership of one’s country), is the result a belief that it is deserved? Does it lead to an inability to leave an abusive situation or predisposition to impose abuse on others? Nikolai is both abuser and abused and, through his inability to understand or deal with the situation, Lewycka proffers no answer to these questions instead leaving it to each reader to reach their own conclusions.