People who enjoy watching those daft British comedies on television will likely enjoy reading A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a funny, slightly offbeat novel written along the lines of the situation comedy formula, right down to one or two characters who speak broken English and use endearments such as “Ah, holubchik. My little pigeon.” The situation in the novel is classic: A dirty, doting old man falls for a sexy, gold-digging bombshell less than half his age. His two daughters, themselves considerably older than the bombshell, engage her and their father in a long, drawn-out struggle to save him. The plot is full of twists and surprises, with each of the thirty-one chapters corresponding to an episode in a comedy series and the author showing great ingenuity in developing them. Though close to being caricatures, the characters nevertheless give a highly entertaining satirical view of modern-day England.
Author Marina Lewycka has said that she set out deliberately to entertain in A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, after writing several novels with big ideas and serious themes that failed to get published. She certainly succeeded in her intentions, producing a novel that won the 2005 Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction and was short-listed for the 2005 Orange Prize for Fiction (an international award for women writing in English). Lewycka’s experience as a university lecturer on public relations probably helped her carry out her intentions, as her characters and their dialogue remind one of television advertisements built around slogans and sound bites and repeated every hour. Although Lewycka drew on popular culture in writing A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, her six books on elder care suggest more serious intentions in the novel than first appear.
In fact, some readers expecting only entertainment might be put off by Lewycka’s inclusion of material echoing her Ukrainian refugee family history. A late product of World War II’s destruction, Lewycka was born in 1946 in a German refugee camp and moved with her family to England a few years later. The Ukrainian refugee family in her novel has a similar history. Lewycka’s father actually did write a book on the history of tractors, as the old widower in the novel is doing, and Lewycka dedicated the novel to the memory of her mother. Although the novel is not strictly autobiographical and draws on only the outlines of Lewycka’s family history, it includes references to Stalinization, the 1930’s Ukrainian famine, the ravages of World War II, the work camps in Germany, the massacre at Babi Yar, and other atrocities that might not seem to fit into a comic novel. Yet this horrific background does fit, with minimum clashing and disruption, as do the tractor history and episodes of elder abuse.
Lewycka uses her comic-writing talents to catch and hold her readers’ attention, as in the opening lines: “Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blond Ukrainian divorcée. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade.” Readers are hooked by page 2, where the old man compares his new love, Valentina, to “Botticelli’s Venus rising from waves. Golden hair. Charming eyes. Superior breasts. When you see her you will understand.” The old man, Nikolai, is speaking by phone with his younger daughter, Nadia, the novel’s narrator, and what she understands (“The randy old beast!”) is obviously different from what he thinks she understands. The novel includes lots of phone calls and, while remaining anchored in Nadia’s point of view, lots of play with different perspectives. These features are symptomatic of the media-dominated world whose fantasies Lewycka satirizes.
For example, the eighty-four-year-old Nikolai, a former engineer with seventeen patents and intellectual interests, has apparently been watching too much television and has bought into the flesh market of the sexual revolution. As he says, “Snag is, hydraulic lift no longer fully functioning. But maybe with Valentina . . . ” He is transfixed by Valentina’s breasts, which she lets him fondle (though later she will not let her new baby breast-feed). If his hydraulic lift malfunctions, Valentina says, “Squishy squashy husband want make oralsex.” Oral sex is recommended by Mrs. Zadchuk, Valentina’s friend, as a legally binding way of consummating the marriage. According to Mrs. Zadchuk, oral...
(The entire section is 1846 words.)