Thursday, October 18, 2012

Of Ukranians, Families and Communism

Most of us, we spend our lives trying to convert our ordinariness into extra-ordinariness. But people who have been scorched by extraordinary events, they spend their lives trying to get back to normal, to escape the pollution and the corruption of what happened to them.

Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian is one such story. On the face of it, it's the story of an 84-year-old Ukranian widower settled in the UK, who falls for a 36-year-old Ukranian woman with fake blond hair and fake boobs. The woman (Valentina) is after the passport that she can get by marrying him. The man's two daughters try to get their father to see reason, to not marry her. When that doesn't work, they try to prove the marriage false and later on to convince him to divorce her.

Lewycka uses this story to explore the complexities of family relationships. The love-hate relationship between the two sisters, the hate-hate relationship between the father and the elder daughter, the love-love relationship between the late mother and two daughters. The trauma that Valentina causes in their lives brings them closer together, helps them understand things about their family that they didn't before, causes them to work through long-held grudges and misunderstandings.

By narrating the story of how the old man and his wife landed in England, Lewycka also explores the century old struggle between communism and capitalism, the excesses of both. Communism gets the worst of her treatment - the 1932 famine that Stalin imposed upon Ukranians to integrate them better into the Soviet Union, the independence struggle that Ukranian Radicals waged against the Soviet Union. The couple also survive Nazi camps and World War II before landing up in England.

A story about a bunch of Ukranians in England could easily have been about a clash of the cultures, but Lewycka thankfully doesn't choose that easy route. The story is set very firmly amongst the Ukranians, with the outside world barely getting a peep in.

Lewycka's greatest merit is that she chooses to show, not tell. The younger daughter is the narrator, and she is just as caught up in the family politics as the rest of the crazy characters. It's up to the reader to interpret her subjective account of the entire ordeal. Maybe Valentina is not as evil as she is shown to be? Maybe the late mother, whom the daughter has always worshiped, also used their father as an escape route? Maybe there is a reason their father is as crazy as he is?

The book's cover says it's a comic novel. But I couldn't see anything comic about it. What's funny about old age, about starvation, about the struggle to survive other people's cruelty? I guess it depends on the reader, as much else does in this book. 
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