Capitalism never seems funnier in Marina Lewycka’s A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, a work of comedy fiction which tells much of the magnetic power of money. Set in today’s England, the novel hilariously, yet painfully, concedes that prosperity will always and only be owned by a powerful country, where money is circling. It surely is not an epic saga about the Cold War, but it presents to us the bitter, complicated fact of the silently warring ideologies all the same, namely capitalism and communism. In comically satirical tone, Lewycka tries to point out fairly what is wrong with both, and how twisting ourselves free of them is impossible.
Upon her mother’s death, Nadezhda receives a call from her father and being told that he is going to get married, again, to a much younger woman. Being in his 80s, the news doesn’t seem to make sense and comes as a shock to Nadezhda, who dearly loves her mother. But Mr. Mayevskyj, a now British citizen who has managed to run away from Stalin’s communist regime gripping the former Russia, stubbornly believes that only he can save the younger woman from the harshness of life in Ukraine after the collapse of the biggest communist nation in the world and insists to play a hero. Valentina, the 36-year-old beautiful woman with enormous boobs Mr. Mayevskyj intends to marry, is apparently in dire need of a British passport and work permit so she can get out of Ukraine permanently with his teenage son. Faintly, Nadezhda can smell Valentina’s ulterior motive and tells her sister Vera about it right away. Previously in dispute over their mother’s legacy, they are then reconciled and set to work together to drive Valentina out of their father’s house for, somehow, they know Valentina will only suck their father dry to get the prosperous life capitalism has to offer.
None of the characters here are portrayed as protagonists, nor any of them are the antagonist. Nadezhda, the narrator, may be the good one, loving and caring for her mother before her death, attentively caring for a very old father with an ongoing project on the history of tractors in Ukrainian, but we cannot let go of her weaknesses. And while Vera seems to be wicked and sly, she is a woman who’s willing to do everything for her family. But most of the time, Valentina is the one who gets my sole attention. Her role may seem small and evil in its very basic sense, but, to my way of thinking, Valentina is the epitome of a capitalist ideologue, having been the “victim” of communism, and therefore the motor of the whole story.
I can say A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is basically built on the unpleasant fact that, when it comes to money, people are completely willing to do everything, even the unthinkable. Wherever money goes, they sure as rain will absent-mindedly follow it. Capitalism has it all, prosperity, luxury, life guarantee, and that’s where money lives and breeds. However, capitalism also demands the evil of you, or you won’t survive otherwise. This is what is embodied in the character of Valentina, in all of us, to say the least. The whole story of this book drives home to me the unrelenting gory power of money, without putting aside the dictatorship and brutality of communism. Lewycka doesn’t take sides in writing this story, instead, she puts everything in balance. She doesn’t feel that she needs to give some resolution, because there is no exact resolution for it, but she makes it obvious that the hunger for money is the core problem of everyone.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is written in a comical, satirical way, a true comedy in its nature. Nevertheless, much as it is critical of the ideologies anchoring around our necks, it doesn’t try to be cynical nor sarcastic. The way Lewycka narrates it is not necessarily extraordinary, but still stinging to the bone. It is a light story, I would say, and hilariously funny, but it also forces us to laugh at the undeniable nature of ourselves (human beings) and the way of the world. The characters described by Lewycka are so natural, too, depicting the way we are in real life. Lewycka also makes fun of how Eastern European immigrants coming to the UK linguistically mess up the standard English pronunciation, which is a little bit quirky. The only problem about this book is, ironically, its jokes. They are just too much and too slapstick to my taste sometimes.
At the end, I would say that A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is the sort of general fiction I’ve always been looking for. You don’t have to be too serious to deliver some issues in a book and successful in it. And Marina Lewycka has proven it with this novel. So, I highly recommend it, either for your joy or kindling your empathy.