Ultima Thule

In ancient times the northernmost region of the habitable world - hence, any distant, unknown or mysterious land.

Tuesday, March 08, 2005

Tractors and love just don't mix

By Aussiegirl

Here's a review of a new novel by a Ukrainian/British author published
in England and reviewed here in the Atlanta
Journal and Constitution
. Sounds like a fun read.


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. By Marina Lewycka. Penguin.
$24.95. 294 pages.
The verdict: An amusing, astonishing debut.
Poor Nikolai Mayevskyj. His beloved wife, Ludmilla, has died. His two
daughters, Vera and Nadia, are feuding. He's 84 and lonely. Nikolai's
exile in England, and all he has to sustain him are his memories of the
Ukraine, which he fled during World War II, and his life's work, a
meticulously researched study of the tractor.

That is, until he meets a babelicious bottle blonde at the local
Ukrainian Club. Valentina is a 30-something divorcee from the old
country determined to find a husband who will shower the riches of the
decadent West upon her deserving self and keep her from being deported.
Nikolai announces his intention to "save this lovely human being" by
marrying her.

May-December romances have been grossing us out and making us laugh
(nervously) from "The Canterbury Tales" to 21st-century trophy wives.
First-time novelist Marina Lewycka is an expert on gerontology, a
lecturer at Britain's Sheffield Hallam University. And so, she's not
squeamish about portraying the old as they really are --- not cuddly
grans or priapic old goats, but people who need more than nostalgia;
people who feel desire, intellectual curiosity, lust, rage, shame, even
romantic love.

It's the children who get embarrassed by all this. Vera, Nikolai's
daughter, is a Gucci-wearing Londoner, an admirer of Margaret Thatcher
who thinks the immigration gate should have been slammed shut once her
family made it out of the refugee camp and into Britain. Nadia, the
younger sister, is an ex-hippie sociologist who buys her clothes from
charity shops. They've been mad at each other ever since their mother's
funeral, two years before:
"There are ten years between Vera and me --- ten years that gave me the
Beatles, the demonstrations against the Vietnam War, the student
uprising of 1968, and the birth of feminism, which taught me to see all
women as sisters --- all women except my sister, that is."

Nonetheless, their wicked stepmother does Nadia and Vera an accidental
favor: Her takeover of their father's house forces them to become
in the struggle to get rid of her before she bankrupts them all.
Valentina insists that her no 'count son go to "Oxford-Cambridge." She
demands a "prestijeskiy auto" instead of a "crap car," then a new stove
(though she only cooks boil-in-the-bag dinners) and a new vacuum
(though she never does housework).

Nikolai ends up in debt, with a broken-down Rolls-Royce on the front
lawn and an unpaid phone bill full of calls to the Ukraine. Meanwhile,
it's clear that Valentina is sleeping around with every Tom, Dick and
Vladimir while she abuses Nikolai emotionally and physically.

Nadia and Vera do what any loving daughters in a modern capitalist
society would do: They hire a lawyer.

The no-holds-barred legal battle between the miniskirted,
monster Valentina and the sisters is hilarious. They don't quite get
down to a hair-pulling cat fight, but almost. Valentina is so
so venal, so trashy that, well, she'd probably win the TV show "Big
Brother." But she's a cartoon, not a character.

In contrast, Nikolai, who seems at first just a gullible old codger,
believing that the Anna Nicole Smith of the steppes really loves him,
given a depth and poignancy that raise "Tractors" far above
farce. We smile when he calls his daughter Vera a ''terrible autocrat.
Tyrant. Like Stalin," but then we find out that he has actually
Stalin, as well as the Germans and the Soviets' attempt to subdue the
Ukraine through starvation.

In one of the most powerfully written sections of the novel, we hear
he deserted the Red Army in 1941 and hid in a broken tomb in the old
Jewish cemetery in Kiev, surviving on snails and grubs, all the while
watching through a crack in the stone while cherries ripened on a tree
above him. One day he couldn't stand it anymore, emerged from the grave
and stuffed himself with fruit. The soldiers caught him. He only
because he tried --- inexpertly --- to kill himself, leading them to
think he was an escaped lunatic instead of a spy.

Marina Lewycka has written a funny, often poignant piece of fiction
about how a family learns to let the past go, and live and love in the
present. Her prose has an assurance, poise and wicked charm seldom seen
in a debut. No doubt she's a riot in the classroom. But let's hope her
academic career doesn't prevent her from saying, as Nikolai does after
he pens the final sentence: "It is finished now. Take it. I have
book to write."


At 6:07 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Great review of a wonderful novel, Aussiegirl. Kiwiboy.


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