Tuesday, 13 December 2011

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian - Marina Lewycka

Masking and unmasking is at the very heart of comedy. Things aren't what we think they are, or are they? Nadezhda, our narrator, is the daughter of aged widower and tractor enthusiast Nikolai. She has been estranged from her older sister Vera since her mother's death, and they were not too close before that. She has ambivalent feelings towards her father, her mother was really the heart of the family. She sees herself as a feminist and a socialist; but is she?

When her 84 year old father becomes embroiled with the 36 year old Ukrainian divorcee Valentina her worldview is challenged. Although her father spins a tale of idealism, wanting to help a fellow Ukrainian escape from the mess the Ukraine has become, his interest in her 'superior breasts' seems just as strong as his idealism. Will this woman simply exploit her father? Is her father to exploit this woman?

Whereas her parents had left the Ukraine while it was under the particularly vicious thumb of Stalinist Russia and rampant communism, it is now under the vicious thumbs of gangsters and rampant capitalism. Or is it all just down to the design of tractors?

Nikolai refuses to blame Valentina for her voracious materialism - "'But for this she cannot be blamed. She believes all western Propaganda.'" She has also, wethinks, been told (by mutual Ukrainan acquaintances) that there must be money as Nadezhda's mother was so pennywise. And Nadezdha and Vera's own battle over money sits there too, hardly a lesson in renunciation.

Both Nadezdha and her sister Vera, although playing the part of "Mrs flog-'em -and-send-'em-home" must also take account of their own status as immigrants whose parents came to better themselves. As Valentina pithily puts it "Is only opportunity for gangster prostitute in Ukraina."

This is a fun read, with some pointed humour. Like the mother the book contains the knowledge that "behind the piled-high shelves and abundantly stocked counters of Tesco and the Co-op, hunger still prowls with his skeletal frame and gaping eyes, waiting to grab you the moment you are off your guard." And there are many types of hunger.

At times tending towards a grotesquerie in the manner of Beryl Bainbridge but with a more cushioned landing for the characters, it is easy to understand the success of this book.

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