I’ve been on a tear recently when it comes to knocking off my 1001 Must Read Books TBRs, with four in a row now, and six from thirteen read this year all up. The highly entertaining A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka is a surprising addition to this list. Engaging and often hilarious it was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction and long-listed for the Man Booker in the same year, it did win the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for comic writing at the Hay Literary Festival, the 2005/6 Waverton Good Read Award, and the 2005 Saga Award for Wit.
The story explodes to life with the following opening:
Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.
We are thus immediately introduced to the main protagonists – Nadezhda, our witty narrator, whose father Nikolai announces that he his to marry a 36-year-old Ukrainian woman, Valentina. He urges her not to tell her sister, Vera, with whom Nadezhda has a strained relationship. Their mother died two years prior, but the dust is still settling between the sisters who argue over money and the legacy of their mother’s story. We very quickly become aware of the dynamics in the family unit, a unit about to grow larger with the arrival of Valentina. It is thus not just the family ‘ghosts’ who get a kick up the backside, but those still trying to find their way in the world.
Nadezhda narrates us through the history of the family including their self-sufficient mother Ludmilla – a product of the poverty, hunger and depravation of her country as it struggled under the iron-grip of Stalin – who brings with her the habits of her Ukrainian homeland to England – her vegetable and fruit garden positively brims with produce and provides a stark backdrop to the avarice of Valentina whose only ability in the kitchen is her boil in the bag and microwave dinners. Nikolai’s early recollections of his homeland – its blue sky over the golden fields, reflected in the nation’s flag of blue over yellow – are juxtaposed with the modern realities of Soviet-style concrete tower blocks, an environment o that still reeks of poverty and from which springs Valentina who divorces her able professor husband in order to emigrate to the UK with her supposedly musically-gifted son Stanislav. It all provides for rampant mirth and madness as Valentina begins to suck poor old Nikolai, a pensioner, dry. He begins to borrow money of his children to pay for Valentina’s excesses, even so far as contemplating sub-dividing his land – selling off the back-garden, selling off the garden that Ludmilla had cultivated for so many long years of marriage. Valentina begins to get violent too, berated Nikolai for being ‘mean’ with his money, pushing him and flicking him with the end of a wet towel. It all proves too much for the children to bear, and they begin to rebuild their relationship in the face of a common enemy. There are constant moments of humour, from Nadezhda’s description of her first meeting with Valentina and the incredible tension of their shared dinner-table to the inevitable and spiteful family interactions.
Nikolai tries to come to terms with the mistake he has made, but only acknowledges it when it seems all is lost. In the meantime, he has begun penning his Opus Magnus – a short history of tractors, written in Ukrainian. The history of the tractor is set against Nadezhda’s increasing interest in the history of her family and the plight of Ukrainians in WWII. There are secret pockets of her family’s past that she only now explores as she and her husband Mike work tirelessly to save her father. The short history is an increasingly poignant meditation. Tractors turn into tanks. The means of production transform into the means of destruction. All of which occurs as Valentina seems determined on the destruction of the increasingly idiosyncratic, some would say senile, Nikolai.
Like the narrator Nadezhda, Lewycka herself was born in a refugee camp in Kiel, Germany, after WWII. Her family then moved to England, where she now lives. What must it be like for a little girl to be born into a refugee camp? If some babies have auspicious stars and circumstance surrounding their birth, then others seem to get the short straw. But maybe this short straw is the one that grows; maybe the miracle of such a birth, in such surrounds, is the true measure of an inviolate blessing. For what we have as its product is Marina Lewycka – a gifted and comedic writer who has blessed us with A Short History of Tractors and has followed it up with equally well-received works such as Two Caravans and We Are All Made of Glue, both of which are now high on my TBR list.
I won’t spoil the fun and reveal how all of this mess is resolved. It is a comedic feast, set against a dark and troubled history, a story of greed and the desire to escape places and lives that seem to have no hope, lives which, in the end, may provide much more were we to take note of what we have, rather than concentrate on how green our neighbour’s grass might be.
It will be interesting to see how this book ages and whether it justifies its place on the 1,001 Must Read list. One thing is for sure, it will entertain many readers for many years to come.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Source: Personal library, aka: ‘Bookshelf Rainbow’.