Old Baggage and Dirty Laundries

“The most beautiful thing is that despite the shallow life we sometimes succumb to – the soul has no timeline and it knows what it wants and will yearn within until it seeks the journey” ~ Malebo Sephodi

Many of us take on individual path that we believe will bring us to the zenith of success. We trudge this path, with a singular vision that this path will eventually bring us to to our destination. Sometimes we fail, sometimes we succeed. As we navigate the complexities of life, we learn that it is never too late to reset and to restart, to pursue what the heart truly desires. As Marina Lewycka has proven to us and to herself, when it comes to things that one is passionate about, these is no such thing as a timeline that one must adhere to. Lewycka started fulfilling her dream of being a writer latter than most. When her debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, she was on the cusp of her 60th birthday.

After years of working as a lecturer, her literary debut was some sort of coming full circle. A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was warmly received by both readers and literary critics alike. It also won Lewycka accolades such as the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize at the Hay literary festival, and the 2005/6 Waverton Good Read Award. It was also shortlisted for the Women’s Prize for Fiction and was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction. With the literary world unrolling its red carpet, the success of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian marked the ascent of an exciting voice. But what does A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian have in store that it charmed many a literary critic the world over?

At the heart of Lewycka’s debut novel is the Mayevskij family, a family of Ukrainian immigrants currently living in England. Nikolai, the family patriarch, is a former engineer who left his native of Ukraine in the aftermath of the Second World War. The matriarch, Ludmilla (Milla, Millochka) Mitrofanova, on the other hand, was born in Novaya Aleksandria, a small garrison in present-day Poland. Milla also found herself moving to England. As fate would have it, Milla and Nikolai’s paths intersected in a land not their own. Drawn in part by their shared history, they fell in love, married, and had two daughters together – Vera and Nadezhda.

“The graveyard, too, is a place where life and death go side by side. A tortoiseshell cat has market out his territory here, and patrols the hedge that separates the cemetery from the cornfields. A pair of fat thrushes are tugging at worms in the earth of a newly turned grave. Five more graves have appeared after hers; five more people have died in the village since she died.”

~ Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

After years of marriage, Milla passed away, leaving Nikolai widowed and alone; his daughters have long since left the comfort of their parent’s home in order to pursue their own passions. The sisters, estranged at a young age by their differences, things were back to normal until one day when Nadezhda, or Nadia as she was fondly referred to, received an unexpected call from her father. She learned that he was about to marry a Ukrainian divorcee: “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. 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 the sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

Whilst it is not out-of-the question that widowed men can still find love in the twilight of their lives, Nikolai’s situation was brimming with red flags that his daughters were quick to point out. The age between Nikolai and Valentina was glaring. Valentina recently divorced her husband and entered the United Kingdom on a tourist visa. It was palpable that she was willing to go any lengths to earn a permanent residency status. A marriage to Nikolai would also ensure the future of Valentina’s 14-year-old son, Stanislav. Vera and Nadia saw through her veneer and fought tooth and nail to convince their father of her wickedness.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, however, does not reduce itself into a predictable story of good versus evil. As the story moves forward, what becomes surfaces is the story of a family who found success in a country not their own. The Mayevskijs were the epitome of an immigrant family who have fully established themselves in England. However, it was not all idyllic as the family members grappled with their own issues. Behind the cloak of humor, wit, and comedy, the readers see the story of a dysfunctional family, in which with each turning of the page, layers of their story, of their history is slowly unveiled.

In Nadia’s words: “I too have a story to tell. Once upon a time we were a family, my mother and father, my sister and I – not a happy family nor an unhappy one, but just a family that pootled along while children grew up and parents grew old. I remember a time when my sister and I loved each other, and my father and I loved each other.” The family’s dirty linens are deeply rooted and complex that they opted to simply bare with it rather than confront them. Nikolai was obsessed with technology and was often haunted by his past. His longing for some semblance of his old home was one of the primary reasons for his relationship with Valentina. On the other hand, Vera and Nadia were not on speaking terms and managed to break the barrier in order to “save” their father from Valentina. Between Vera and Nikolai existed a deep loathing. It didn’t help that the one who held the family together passed away, creating an opening for Valentina, who saw the disharmony as an opportunity. In Nikolai, she saw her chance for a British visa, hence, she exploited his inherent weaknesses using her wiles.

“The history books tell of ingenious ways of inflicting painful lingering death. The gift of imagination, perverted by blood-lust, invented tortures undreamt of before, and former neighbours became enemies for whom mere shooting was too merciful.”

~ Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Beyond the ambit of the domestic life, Lewycka, the novel grappled with heavy and dark themes. In Valentina we see an ambitious person who is willing to go through fire to ensure a great future for her and her son. In a way, Valentina’s story is a reflection of Nikolai’s (and consequently, Milla’s) own for in them we see individuals who are escaping the ugly realities of home. The situation between Nikolai and his wife, who was young enough to be his own daughter, or perhaps granddaughter, is also beyond absurd but not; it echoed some realities sometimes too uncomfortable to talk about. However, Nikolai, an octogenarian, subservient to his own needs, cannot resist the buxom blonde that is Valentina.

The story, however, does not reduce itself into a mere exploration of family dynamics. On the backdrop, Lewycka painted vivid details of Ukrainian history. As Nadia looks for solutions to solve their current problem, she found herself reminiscing and pondering about Ukraine and its tumultuous past. As she reflects on the story of her parents, mostly on her mother’s, she and the readers learn about the tragic events that have stymied the country’s development, from the famine, Nazi occupation, concentration camps, Stalin’s purges, and the infamous Babi Yar. The painful memories of the past painted grisly images that was in stark dichotomy to the “comical” overtones of the primary storyline.

The titular A Short History of Tractors in the Ukrainian is a reference to a book that Nikolai was writing. Throughout the novel, Nikolai read excerpts of the book he was writing. It was also a metaphor to his personal journey. It was the story of an East European engineer whose first love was machines, who moved from the communist East to the capitalist West. The book within a book included intricate details regarding the history of Ford’s first tractors, the success found by John Deere, and how this advances in in farming technologies impacted our world. This was also a subtle attempt to shed some more light on Ukraine’s contemporary history. Whilst it was rich in information, it failed to meld into the narrative. It felt out of place.

The novel’s premise, at some point was promising. There were parts that were tender and were parts that were funny. it was quirky, and Lewycka crafted comic scenes that bring genuine laughs. However, it failed to pull in punches. The novel neither elaborated on the immigrant experience of the Mayevskijs or about the Ukrainian community in England. What the novel offered is the predictable and mundane story of a dysfunctional family and an opportunist juxtaposed on the history of the nation they left behind or are planning to leave behind. The novel, with its perceived lighthearted premise, is often marketed as a humorous novel. However, most of this humorous aspect was weighed down by the unconscionable realities the story has underscored. There certainly is nothing funny about being alone in old age or in the exploitation of the elderly. The images of a helpless octogenarian being taunted and bullied leaves a bitter aftertaste.

“My mother had known ideology, and she had known hunger. When she was twenty-one, Stalin had discovered he could use famine as a political weapon against the Ukrainian kulaks. She knew – and this knowledge never left her throughout her fifty years of life in England, and then seeped from her into the hearts of her children – she knew for certain 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.”

~ Marina Lewycka, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Lewycka tried to make up with these flaws by creating an cast of characters. None of the characters were particularly likeable. Both sisters, for instance, were self-absorbed and vicious. Their father, on the other hand, was powerless in light of the situation that he got himself in. At times, the characters come as farcical caricatures. Despite the ridiculousness of the characters, one can’t also help but sympathize with them as Lewycka was wise enough to paint their individual stories. Lewycka’s writing, on the other hand, was neither great nor bland. But whilst it lack imagination, it was, nevertheless, accessible and easy to read.

A Short History of Tractors in the Ukrainian did fall short on several fronts. Lewycka takes the reader into the Mayevskij household as she tackled the dynamics of family life that is rife of disagreements, sibling feuds, divorce, and within the same sphere existed filial love, caring, and understanding. The novel is ambitious as it tried to grapple with a plethora of subjects, including a book within a book. However, it ultimately crumbled under the weight of its ambitiousness. In the end, it came across as a typical story. It also does not bring much into the table, in so far as the migrant experience is concerned. Despite its flaws, it is a tender and funny book, memorable for all the wrong reasons.

Ratings

39%

Characters (30%) – 11%
Plot (30%) – 10%
Writing (25%) – 11%
Overall Impact (15%) – 7%

While browsing the catalogue of an online bookseller, one title in particular piqued my interest. It was Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. At first, I thought it was a nonfiction book, which made me ambivalent about buying the book. I changed my mind after a quick research on the book yielded that it was a novel and was listed as part of 1,001 Books You Must Read Before You Die. It didn’t take much to convince me to purchase it; after all, it was on sale. Ahead of other books slowly piling dust on my bookshelf, I chose A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian as part of my October 2020 reading journey because I was intrigued. Unfortunately, the intrigue only got me so far. Marketed as a “humorous” novel, I felt like the humor misfired as the narrative careened towards dark comedy. Not once did I find myself “rolling on the floor laughing” as can be expected from a “humorous” novel. To her credit, the prose was accessible. Overall, it tried to explore a lot of seminal themes but fell short.

Book Specs

Author:  Marina Lewycka
Publisher: Viking
Publishing Date: 2005
Number of Pages: 324
Genre: Humorous Fiction

Synopsis

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. 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 the sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

When their recently widowed father announces he plans to remarry, sisters Vera and Nadezhda realize they must put aside a lifetime of feuding in order to save him. His new love is a voluptuous gold-digger from the Ukraine half his age, with a proclivity for green satin underwear and boil-in-the-bag cuisine, who stops at nothing in her single-mided pursuit of the luxurious Western lifestyle she dreams of. But the old man, too, is pursuing his eccentric dreams – and writing a history of tractors in Ukrainian.

A wise, tender and deeply funny novel about families, the healing of old wounds, the trials and consolations of old age and – really – about the legacy of Europe’s history over the last fifty years.

About the Author

Marina Lewycka was born shortly after the end of World War II on October 12, 1946 in a refugee camp in Kiel, Schleswig-Holstein, Germany.

Her family subsequently moved to England where she attended Gainsborough High School for Girls in Gainsborough, Lincolnshire, then Witney Grammar School in Witney, Oxfordshire. In 1968, she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts in English and Philosophy from Keele University. A year later, she received her Bachelor of Philosophy in English Literature from the University of York. She pursued a PhD at King’s College, London but she did not complete her post-graduate degree.

Before pursuing a literary career, Lewycka was a lecturer  in media studies at Sheffield Hallam University until her retirement in March 2012. In 2005, she made her literary debut with the publication of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It was a critical success as received several accolades such as 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. It was also long-listed for the 2005 Man Booker Prize and short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction. Her second novel, Two Caravans (March 2007) was shortlisted for the 2008 Orwell Prize for political writing. Her latest novel, The Lubetkin Legacy, was published in 2016. Lewycka has also published and donated a score of short stories.

Lewycka is currently residing in Sheffield, England.