Marina Lewycka

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

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A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian Summary

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The novel A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian (2005) hides a darkly poignant story of family dysfunction under a veneer of comic farce. Author Marina Lewycka uses her own heritage to tell the story of two Ukrainian-English sisters who must put aside their own differences in order to extricate their octogenarian father from a marriage to a much younger gold-digger. However, under this mostly lighthearted veneer, the novel traces the roots of the sisters’ enmity, and with them, the ways in which the family suffered under the Communist regime from which they managed to flee. The novel was critically acclaimed upon publication, eventually being shortlisted for the Orange Prize for Fiction.

The narrator, forty-seven-year-old Nadezhda (Nadia for short) Mayevskij is a university lecturer in sociology in Peterborough, a small city east of London in England.

Nadia’s family has never been very happy – especially since the death of her mother, a calming presence who had been a peacemaker. Two years ago, after the funeral, Nadia and her much older sister, Vera, stopped speaking after an argument about the will – an argument that, in Nadia’s telling, hinged on Vera’s unbridled materialism. Nadia’s father, Nikolai, is a retired engineer whose chauvinism has driven away both daughters, and who laments his intellectual glory days. He holds seventeen technological patents and now spends his days writing the quasi-academic tract that gives the novel its title (every now and again excerpts from it interrupt the novel proper).

As the novel opens, eighty-four-year-old Nikolai tells his daughters that he has fallen in love and is going to get married. The object of his affection is Valentina, an illegal immigrant from Ukraine whose main appeal appears to be her youth (she is thirty-six years old), her dyed-blonde hair, and her enormous, voluptuous breasts.

The sisters are horrified. It seems completely clear to them that Valentina is just using their father to stay in the UK, and they are scandalized that all it took to bamboozle their supposedly brilliant father are some satin green underwear and a pretended knowledge of Nietzsche. However, we soon learn that while Valentina is indeed an opportunist, everything she does is for her son Stanislav, whose high IQ wasn’t well served in Ukrainian schools.

Nadia and Vera fail to prevent the marriage from taking place, and Valentina is installed in Nikolai’s house. The garden that Nadia and Vera’s mother so lovingly cultivated immediately falls apart; Valentina has no interest in keeping up the interior of the house either. Instead, she wheedles Nikolai for luxury material goods: a falling-apart Rolls Royce rather than a working regular car, and a top of the line stove she doesn’t use.

Valentina’s behavior soon escalates from grasping and greedy to straight-up abusive. Annoyed at having to sexually satisfy a lecherous but impotent old man, she resorts to hitting Nikolai, calling him names, and eventually simply locking him in his room. Nikolai quickly realizes that he has made a terrible mistake, but he refuses to admit it. Nevertheless, the sisters suss out the truth.

The sisters work to get rid of Valentina for good. They agree that they need to get Nikolai a divorce, but when Nadia tells Vera that afterward, they should also get Valentina deported back to Ukraine, Vera’s hesitation results in some family secrets finally spilling out. It turns out that some of Nadia’s anti-immigrant opinions stem from her never really knowing exactly how and why her own family immigrated. Because she herself was born in England, she has never had a clear picture of the kinds of horrors that prompt people to leave their native countries.

What Nadia learns is heartbreaking. Vera was born in 1937, just after the Ukrainian famine of the early 1930s and during Stalin’s mass-murder purges of anyone deemed less than ideologically pure. As soon as war broke out in 1941, Nikolai was drafted into the Soviet Army where his engineering training was put to use developing tractors, airplanes, tanks, and other machinery. Meanwhile, Vera and her mother were imprisoned in a concentration camp. Eventually, Nikolai deserted the army to find his family, but during his escape attempt, he was caught by German troops. When he tried to kill himself, he was sent to a concentration camp – fortuitously, the same one where Vera and his wife also were. However, their happy reunion was short-lived. Eight-year-old Vera stole cigarettes from a German officer, and as punishment, all three were locked in the camp’s “Correction Block,” essentially a human slaughterhouse. A few days before they were scheduled to be killed, British forces liberated the camp.

After the war, the Mayevskijs immigrated, and a year later, in 1946, Nadia was born. Never having known the terrors of wartime, she hasn’t had the context in which to understand or empathize with her family members. Her mother kept a garden not for aesthetics but as an emergency source of food. Vera isn’t materialistic – she just never got over the sense that material comforts could be ripped away at a moment’s notice. Her father’s obsession with technology isn’t eccentric – it’s his connection to a youth spent doing productive and uncompromised intellectual work. And his marriage isn’t just a quirk of elderly lust – he genuinely wants to help little Stanislav, to give opportunities to a boy who reminded him of himself.

The novel’s comic plot thickens when Valentina turns out to be a woman in high demand. Her Ukrainian not quite ex-husband turns up, and she is found to be sexually involved with both a smarmy car salesman and the owner of a low-rent neighborhood pub. To cap it off, Valentina announces that she is pregnant – and it is not entirely clear who the father of this baby is.

Finally, after some humorously nonsensical court proceedings, the marriage ends in divorce, and Valentina deports herself, going back to Ukraine with baby Margaret, Stanislav, and her original husband. Meanwhile, the sisters reconcile with their aging father, convincing him that the best place for him now is a comfortable nursing home.

The novel ends with Nikolai ensconced in his new living facility, where he wakes up in the morning and performs a yoga sun salutation in the nude.