A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

A not, in fact, hilarious book.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, Marina Lewycka

Let’s get something straight right off the bat: this is not a particularly funny book.  “But wait,” I hear you say.  “It’s described as ‘Extremely funny’ right there on the book jacket!”  I know, but it is not.  “It won the Wodehouse prize, exclusively given to humorous books!”  Perhaps that is generally true, but in this case they made an exception.

This isn’t to say that the book is bad, per se.  It was actually a pretty enjoyable read that pulled me in and I think is a very good first novel, although I’m not as enamored with it as some reviewers are.  It’s just that I believe in truth in advertising, and this book is really only funny by the standards of Soviet and post-Soviet jokes, where the joke is that everything and everyone is horrible.  (Sample: Russian officer looks at cloud and sees potato.  Latvian* looks at cloud and sees impossible dream.  Is same cloud.)  (Sample 2: What does one potato say to the other potato?  Is joke, there is no second potato.)

I have somewhat mixed feelings on this book.  It recounts the tale of Nadezhda, a British-born child of Ukrainian immigrants, her elderly father, and estranged, Ukrainian-born sister, shortly after the dearth of her mother.  Her father has taken up with and marries a much younger Ukrainian woman, Valentina, quite clearly and openly looking to stay in the country with her teenage son, and the sisters reunite to try to get rid of the woman.  The father is also writing a short history of tractors, in Ukrainian, which is woven throughout the book.  Through the telling of the story, it goes into the family’s experience in the Ukraine during the Soviet takeover and World War II, and all of the horrors included therein.

The book never really seemed to explore the characters.  Tractors in Ukrainian is mostly about its characters, so it seems an odd criticism to make, but nonetheless I came away feeling as if I didn’t really know or understand any of them.  There were glimpses here and there, and in particular I thought the small bits here and there about the children and their confusion as to being caught up in this mess were well done.  However, it felt like for the most part we were always skating along the surface.  In particular, her father and his wife often come off as caricature.  SPOILER: Also–and this is the sort of little niggling detail that can get under my skin and absolutely ruin a book for me–also, the young wife is having an affair and gets pregnant.  And in the course of the book, while Nadia is constantly complaining about her, she adds that Valentina is growing fatter and fatter.  Okay.  There is no way a woman who has been pregnant and had children mistakes a growing pregnancy as anything but that.  It just does not happen.  And it’s a very unrealistic note in the book.

The points in the book exploring what life was like in the Ukraine were well constructed and affecting, especially since I read this shortly after I’d read Ta-Nehisi Coates series of essays on The Bloodlands, about the famine in the Ukraine.  And, of course, it was at the top of my mind since I started it around the the time that Russia decided to invade the Ukraine.  As I’ve mentioned before, accounts of people living–not necessarily heroic struggles or revolutionary work, but just daily life–in extreme circumstances is a topic that I find fascinating, so those bits of the book held my interest.  However, I don’t know how well that they flowed with the modern Ukrainian immigrants’ stories.

Despite it’s flaws, Tractors in Ukrainian did draw me in and keep me reading, almost in spite of itself.  I would certainly give some of her other books a try.  In fact, I probably wouldn’t be so disappointed in it if it weren’t for the accolades and awards it’s received, that make me think I must be missing something.  As it stands, though, it feels like it just didn’t live up to what it could be.

 

*You can really insert anything here: Ukrainian, Estonian, Belorussian, they all work.