fiction, review

Man Tiger

English edition's cover
English edition’s cover

Man Tiger (or Lelaki Harimau in its original title) is Eka Kurniawan’s second novel and his second work to be translated into English. Longlisted for 2016 Man Booker International Prize, it concerns the life of the lower class and disintegration of family values caused by complexities in human beings. Here, as in Beauty Is A Wound (Cantik Itu Luka), Kurniawan leans on magical realism—a fact proven by his use of a white tigress resided in the body of a young man—to help embellish his realistic narrative. Unlike his previous book, though, Man Tiger is less complicated and less attention-gripping, to my thinking. It’s rather simple, in its prose style if not in its idea.

The story opens with news of Margio, a young man of 20 years old, committing a murder. The victim is Anwar Sadat, a figure of the village well-known for his promiscuous behavior. But since the first time the reader has been dimly convinced that it’s not the reason Margio sinks his teeth into and rips at the middle-aged man’s jugular to his death. The loose morals of his art-loving neighbor is barely Margio’s concern. He even often helps him at home, doing odd jobs for extra cash just as youngsters usually do. So it’s very obvious that there is no reason at all for him to suddenly kill Anwar Sadat. But he’s done it. Not less shocking, and appalling, is the way he does the killing. It’s not the way any human murderer will choose to end their victim’s life. His reminds everyone of the way a beast, here particularly a tiger, attacks its prey and finishes it off. It especially bewilders Major Sadrah, who has for some time seen Margio carrying an old, rusty samurai sword everywhere, to see the young man eventually puts aside his newly-found Japanese weapon and goes the wild way. So the mystery now revolves around two questions: Why the biting? And why Anwar Sadat, not his father, the one he hates most?

One look at the first pages, which elaborately describe the land and neighborhood of a village that will be the setting of the whole story, and the reader will quickly get that this would be about the lower-class people. The way Kurniawan tells of how the land is found and later how the neighborhood is built on it is not far from harsh criticism focusing on the problems those people often have to deal with: the poor living conditions, the dispute over land ownership, the low incomes, fighting against the wicked capitalists. As the story moves forward, the descriptions are narrowing to the poor conditions of Margio’s family, and this is the point where Kurniawan gets really sharp. Margio’s family is the true embodiment of poverty, of a reality where so many villagers with big dreams coming to big cities only to find themselves trapped in high unemployment and finally have to content themselves with low-income, unskilled jobs. Even worse, they are almost homeless, in a sense, building temporary houses on a disputed land just to have a roof over their heads. And once you live in poverty, there will definitely be a possibility of domestic violence. It’s like something you cannot run away from. And from domestic violence springs another problem: norms deviation and disintegration of family values. People with conventional thoughts will expect faithfulness and familial togetherness. But life is complex and humans are even more so. There is not a certain answer for what’s right and what’s wrong when it has come to this.

Man Tiger is not as extraordinary as Beauty Is A Wound, in my opinion, although it has rather neater narrative. Kurniawan cleverly makes the plot layered in a string of subplots to reveal the mysteries one by one, intending perhaps to present the whole story as some kind of whydunit fiction. It’s so seamless, the way he arranges it all, and very shrewd, too. So shrewd it is that he manages to keep the answer of the why till the end of the story. Admittedly, the element of surprise really works here. It is not, however, a grand creation in its entirety. Perhaps it’s because the premise is somewhat unexceptional: domestic violence spurred by the shattered dreams of prosperity. Or perhaps, it is the development of the premise that prevents it from becoming something more than this. It is pretty boring, too, at the opening, a bit stretching too long for an explanation of everything but the background of Margio’s family, which Kurniawan puts later after the half of the book. And that is not all. If there is one thing which is as bothering, it is the holes I found in some parts. One or two holes at least, and one of them is where Major Sadrah seems to recall seeing Margio carrying a samurai sword some time before the young man kills Anwar Sadat, but then there is no further explanation about the weapon. I don’t know if it’s intentional, or if Kurniawan really forgets about it after all.

Despite it all, Man Tiger is still the work of Eka Kurniawan that I know, with its explicit sex scenes and dark, subtle humor. It’s quite disappointing on the one hand, but also relieving on the other. So it’s pretty hard to decide whether this work is good or not. But it’s definitely not as good as Kurniawan’s first novel.
Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

All She Was Worth

Indonesian edition’s cover

“Case solved” is always what people would expect from a crime novel. But, what if it doesn’t work that way? All She Was Worth, a work of Japanese crime fiction by Miyuki Miyabe, provides us with an alternative. Taking a different route from others in the same genre, the book combines the thing that you call “whodunit” with “whydunit” to form a twisted narrative which will take you to nowhere near a solution. Forget about the not-so-extraordinary premise, at the end of the game you will only find yourselves asking, “Will the culprit ever give up?”

Set in the early 90s’ Japan, the story starts when Shunsuke Honma, a detective on leave upon getting injured on his last duty, gets a visit from his wife’s cousin’s son, Jun Kurisaka. The young banker never cares about the Honmas, he doesn’t even come up when his aunt dies, so it’s only obvious that now he comes with a problem: his fiancée has gone missing. Honma is told that they are about to get married, but suddenly, after an argument over making a credit card, she disappeared. There’s no telling whether Shoko Sekine, the girl in question, is being kidnapped or not, but Honma has a suspicion that she ran away for fear of being found out on something. True enough, the first investigation step Honma takes leads him to the fact that Sekine has been declared bankrupt in the court for her inability to pay her debts. The thing is, Kurisaka knows nothing about this, not because Sekine never tells him, but because the girl who is his fiancée never knows that she has been bankrupt. How could it be? What actually happens? The winding path of further investigation brings Honma to a confusing discovery that the Shoko Sekine Kurisaka thinks he knows is not the real Shoko Sekine. So, who is she? Why is it that she seems to be someone who is not her?

All She Was Worth is not a mystery novel in which everything is kept secret till the last page. Somehow the questions of who and why dunit have been solved at the last 1/3 of the book. The novel itself is not actually about mystery, on the whole. It’s about crime, and whether the perpetrator will do it again, just to save her life. So anyone looking for a conventional crime fiction book with usual features and plot will definitely be disappointed. There is a thrill, of course, and it steadily lasts till the end. But the thrill itself is not something readers would usually expect from this kind of book. It’s not a thrill of suspense, it’s a thrill of tracking and investigating. As unusual as it is, though, All She Was Worth doesn’t have an out-of-this-world idea, what with the murder case and stolen identity and all. That’s said, there is a message buried deep under the narrative. It’s something to ponder about: how we live in consumerism, greed, stifling credit system, deceitful capitalism, and how people tend to imagine their dreams and happiness come true in the form of worldly goods. Our endless desire for more has turned us into mentally weak people and plunged us into deep hole of debts. And the next thing we know, we start to kill each other in cold blood.

What makes All She Was Worth a fascinating, enjoyable read is how meticulous Miyabe is in arranging every detail so that they develop into a sturdy body of plot. And it’s a tricky one. At first, I found myself baffling as to why Miyabe woud reveal “everything” just after the first investigation she makes Honma do. But then the storyline brought me to further discovery and more shocking facts, even more and more questions for me to try to find out the answers. There are more twists and turns than you’d think and, strangely enough, they won’t make you scratch your head during your reading. You could say that Miyabe is very careful with the way she lays her tricks and sets the pace into a fast, steady one. What’s more interesting is that Miyabe weaves together every detail and fact found at every step of investigation into a vivid character of the culprit. At the end of the story, we will be able to see clearly what kind of person she is, although not quite clearly what she will do, or what will happen to her, next. Every aspect of the novel is well constructed and carefully written. And Miyabe doesn’t try to waste our time with too much drama or too long explanation of each characterization. She cleverly elaborates every character through their actions, ways of thinking, and brief dialogues without being too much about it.

Overall, All She Was Worth is a work of crime fiction I’d expect to be, or at least the kind I’d prefer to read, case solved or not. Not too much drama, compact, exciting, and enjoyable. The thing that becomes my complaint here is the translation. Not that it’s bad or something. It’s just, in my opinion, there are some translated sentences that are not carefully considered, and thus become quite literal in their meanings. But that’s not really a problem, though, because it’s not so bad that it will ruin your reading. It’s still a crime novel I will undoubtedly recommend to anyone fond of the genre.

Rating: 3.5/5

Note: This review is submitted to fulfill Opat’s 2016 Japanese Literature Reading Challenge.

fiction, review

Dream of Ding Village

A book could serve as a satirical picture or sharp allegory, especially when it has no intention to be discreet about what it is actually picturing. Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke, first published in English in 2011, is this very kind of book. Being said to be a biting satire on the blood-contamination scandal in Henan, it is, oddly enough, describing mostly how capitalist mentality is gradually seeping into and gnawing away at the heart of the communist China.

Once upon a time in China, in an imaginary place called Ding Village, scandalous blood contamination spread and brought about HIV epidemic. The villagers were persuaded by the government to sell their blood for a certain amount of money, and after so much disbelieving and resisting, they agreed to do as they’re told. But that was not the end of it, as procedural malpractice done by the blood merchants shadowed the running of the blood trade. More often than not, those tricky merchants—including Ding Hui, the eldest son of the village’s substitute teacher Ding Shuiyang—would use the same needles and cotton wipes for several times and drew blood more than they should in exchange for a lesser amount of money supposed to be given, leaving the villagers with an incurable fever no one knew the remedy. Through this “dirty business”, Ding Hui got rich and could afford to build a new, bigger house than those the average villagers had. That, along with the fever, triggered envy, grudge and hatred in the heart of people of Ding Village. And so, someone among them killed his little son Ding Qiang, and it was from the point of view of this boy’s ghost that the entire story unfolded: the villagers’ move to the village school to spend the rest of their lives, their forbidden love affair, their act of stealing things, and the takeover of the school by Jia Genzhu and Ding Yuejin, those who hate Ding Hui most.

I don’t think Dream of Ding Village talks about the blood-contamination scandal happened in Henan, China, as it is described throughout the book. I believe it’s more about the moral vacuum that comes along with capitalist mentality piercing through the country. It is clearly reflected in the character of Ding Hui, the one set to be the antagonist of the story, in the way he tricks the villagers for money, in his belief that money is everything and can buy everything (including honor and dignity), and in the current conditions of big cities in that communist country—cities which have been more modern, richer, and more sophisticated. But the capitalist value sharply projected by all these features doesn’t immediately kill off the true communist character of China, of its people and government. The equal amount of food supplies for all the sick villagers and the same coffins for all the dead villagers from the government are examples of how communism still stands firmly there in spite of the rampant economic development brought by capitalism. This makes China, as described in the book, a country of stark contrast.

What made me so lost during my reading was the reason those villagers had to sell their blood. Frankly speaking, I never heard of the scandal and the book offers no explanation of why Chinese government seems so insistent that the villagers of Henan province should sell their blood. I couldn’t get deep into the story and understand the core of the issue. This book seems only to try to criticize the government’s decision to trade its people’s blood and the aftermath of the dirty business, nothing else. The narrative doesn’t help, either. It holds no appeal it needs to catch the reader’s attention amidst all the sharp criticism and satire, leaving them bored going around and around in an inconsistent pace and weak structure. It has also to be interrupted by a not-so-important forbidden-love story, which is, ironically, more interesting than what the writer intends to put forward. What’s worse, the entire story is told from a twelve-year-old child’s point of view. I know a boy at that age is not that innocent (he might have known about sex and all), but I don’t think he’s already that mature to know or understand adults’ way of thinking, their evil minds, their schemes, their hatred, their anger as he is not supposed to only serve as an observer, but also a narrator who tells the tale, who understands all the details. The only good thing about this book is its ending—it’s shocking, it’s unbelievable, and yet it surprisingly feels right.

In conclusion, Dream of Ding Village by Yan Lianke just didn’t work for me. I might have liked it if it gave me even a little explanation of the issue, or provided me with a captivating narrative that could make me forget about the issue.

Rating: 2.5/5

fiction, review

The Bell Jar

Indonesian edition’s cover

What becomes our problem, is what see as a problem. But, what is exactly our problem? As I read The Bell Jar, it seemed to me that Esther Greenwood sees everything in her life as a problem. The truth of my introductory sentence earlier is quite debatable, I must admit, but when you read the whole story of hers, will you feel the same? Trapped in a bell jar? This Sylvia Plath’s only novel is said to be one of must-read feminist novels, but I, as a woman, couldn’t honestly relate to it in any way. Is it really about being a woman, or is it about being unable to make peace with yourself?

Being a semi-autobiography, The Bell Jar can be thought to be presenting the life story of Sylvia Plath in disguise. It focuses on Esther Greenwood, a young woman who seems to have everything every woman wants, even a man she’s been admiring for so long. She makes her way to New York, getting an internship at a big magazine company, living in luxury, having a good, though not trusted, friend. Half the women in the world are willing to sacrifice anything to get all that she has and yet she’s not happy about any of it. To her, everything is a lie, what she chooses, what transpires around her, people she meets and has acquaintances with, even the man who becomes her lover, Buddy Willard, is a complete body of lies. She wants to get out, and her simplest way of doing so is to try to commit suicide. Over and over she tries to take her own life, only to fail then and there. Her constant attempts on her life eventually drag her to a mental hospital, though, looking at her narration, she doesn’t look like a mentally ill person at all. Unfortunately, the situation turns for the worse for her at the hospital, as its occupants pack even more lies than she’s already witnessed in the outside world.

Through her painfully depressing narration, Sylvia Plath portrays the character of Esther Greenwood with sharp realness, treating the reader to a concrete display of thoughts and feelings which shapes the entire narrative we perceive. The diction Plath uses to describe Esther’s restlessness and bottled-up anger and inability to make a choice of her own is so unbearably sweeping. She doesn’t make Esther a flat-out fruitcake, but slowly arranges her tiny pieces into a puzzling picture we might see as an incomplete, dissatisfied, resentful person. Along the book, readers are relentlessly presented with all the reasons why she wants to kill herself, all the things that symbolize her inner disapproval of the way of the world and thus define how she thinks and where she stands. Her character is so gloomy, troubled, difficult, emanating sadness and helplessness. No wonder she always thinks of committing suicide, though all those traits don’t necessarily determine her subtle mental illness.

To be honest, I don’t see The Bell Jar as a feminist novel in any way. It focuses on a female character, yes, with all her restless thoughts and melancholy feelings, but I don’t think Esther’s problem is particularly a woman’s problem. Depression is a state of psyche that can possibly happen to anyone of any sex and gender. It’s not a picky mental condition. Moreover, the book is set and written in 1960s’ America, where rebellion of any sort had been unrestrictedly possible. Her sense of confinement in New York, the way I see it, is more of her reluctance to be the victim of capitalism and falsehood than of her anxiety as a woman. Her unspoken hatred toward her boyfriend Buddy Willard for his hypocrisy seems to me to be off the mark, for she herself won’t speak up her volcanic mind. Some hapless women indeed cannot say no, but for a woman like Esther Greenwood, it should be an easy thing to do. The story, and portrayal, of Esther Greenwood only put me in mind of a person who cannot make peace with themselves and can decide nothing more than committing suicide.

The Bell Jar is beautifully written, actually. The narrative is so poignant and depressing, moving me into a gloomy mood I never expected to feel in the beginning of reading it. The narration of what happens from page one fuses very well with the characterization of Esther Greenwood that they really become one seamless unity. The plot runs very smooth as well, packed with fast-paced, short scenes. Plath doesn’t waste any words on long, useless descriptions, but effectively arranges sentences to form every scene and elaboration of secret feelings. Through her simple yet rich narrative, we can understand Esther’s character and the story without much difficulty. The Bell Jar is an indescribably picturesque tale of a life, only it’s too sad to enjoy.

At the end, I would say that The Bell Jar is a great book as a whole. I liked the story, I liked the comprehensive portrayal of the main character, and I liked the way Plath describes the thoughts and feelings of said character. I just disagree that it is named as one of must-read feminist novels, since I didn’t find anything wrong with her womanhood.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

The Heart is a Lonely Hunter

Indonesian edition’s cover

Some people are living a sad, lonely life, being stereotyped and discriminated and misfits simply for what and who they are, for what they choose to do or to believe. As the minority, they have to live with being unaccepted, socially, and stranded away in the path nobody’s walking through. Thus, they are left alone and empty. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter by Carson McCullers pretty much reflects this reality, which remains prevailing even up to this day everywhere despite the book’s publishing date back in 1940. Set in America, the land of the “melting pot”, where the term of diversity can be both beneficial and problematical, the novel conveys loneliness within the diversity of people who can also possibly be us.

The story unfolds in an overlapping plot where all the characters undergo such unpleasant experiences in their lives. John Singer, a deaf-and-dumb Jew, lives with his dumb Greek friend, Spiros Antonapoulos, in a little Southern town. Being best friends, they never feel lonely, although problems and quarrels seem unable to be avoided. But soon, after Antonapoulos leaving him, Singer feels empty and depressed, thinking that no one can understand him as well as Antonapoulos does, in spite of the fact that Antonapoulos never seems to understand him at all. The same loneliness befalls Jake Blount, a radical leftist man who cannot stand living in a capitalist America and thinks that he must make a difference by doing something extreme. But no sooner can he do anything to realize his idealism than people mock him for being a communist, making it clear that no one can hold a socialist idea in the United States of America without being socially isolated.

Having big dreams is never a wrongdoing in the land of America, but when Mick Kelly has to face her inconvenient environment and inability to realize her dreams, composing wonderful music and traveling around the world, she knows that she’s stuck. She doesn’t seem to have anywhere to run to, despite the warmth and open-armed welcome Biff Brannon gives her. To Brannon, Mick, and his own niece, are the embodiment of children he always longs for, but can never have, looking at his sexual problem and his wife’s terrible condition. And, in the middle of it all, Benedict Copeland lives as an African-American doctor who has to endure the discrimination and oppression the white people majority put him through. It’s never easy to be an African-American in America, much less an African-American doctor at that time. However big his dedication to his job and to the best interest of his people is, no matter what his plan for the future of his race is, he will always find himself alone, because there is always a vivid barrier between black and white people.

McCullers presents to the reader what it’s like to be alien to a society, to a place we are living in, in an overlapping yet unpuzzling way. All the characters are told brilliantly, described strongly and naturally along the seamlessly flowing plot. All the characters come from diverse backgrounds, yet they experience the same feeling of isolation, of depression, and that’s what relates them to each other. Their stories make an intertwined whole, but narrated so carefully unbaffling that the reader can follow it thoughtfully without any sense of boredom, getting deep into the feelings and thoughts of all the characters involved. McCullers uses a simple but gripping narrative to tell it all, with simple language stitching it up together that is planted firmly in our mind to make us feel the day-to-day difficulties and loneliness of the lonely hunting hearts. The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is a natural story, told modestly in an unextravagant way yet still arousing our conscience, about people who cannot taste happiness and peace of heart, people who are lonely, poor, discriminated, unloved, yet still pursue their dreams and try to realize their idea. This book is so marvelous except for one tiny flaw: its predictable end, which is quite disappointing.

In conclusion, The Heart is a Lonely Hunter is an incredible work of literary fiction about humanity, about something that exists inside every human being but is not obviously plain to see. It is a great prose as a whole, and I highly recommend it to anyone who enjoys a great work of literature.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

Two Caravans

Capitalism and communism will always be warring in silence, though sometimes it’s too obvious to remain subtle, and we will always find ourselves taking the capitalist side. It is its promise of prosperity and luxury that makes it successfully invasive, spreading and gnawing away at the world inside out, demanding the evil of us in return for the money it generously hands us. Sometimes, it does not only demand our evil side of self, but also our suffering and sacrifice. This is what is reflected in the novel Two Caravans. Set in the capitalist England, and imaginary Ukraine at times, this second book of Marina Lewycka still, in the tradition of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, talks about how attractive money can be and how a rich, prosperous country will never lose its magnetic features.

Two Caravans is a comedy about some immigrants, seemingly illegal, running to England in search of a better life. Tricked by an evil, greedy agent, Irina, Andriy, Vitaly, Emmanuel, Marta, Yola, Tommaz, and two Chinese girls coming from two different countries (China and Malaysia) have to settle for an underpaid strawberry-picking job while they’re dreaming of earning big money. And that’s only for starters. They also have to willingly surrender their lives to the agent controlling their fate and sucking them dry, get their wages cut for many deductions. They run, needless to say, but they cannot run away from the challenges and problems of being illegal immigrants. They’re separated, desperate, almost getting caught, and running all the times like wanted prisoners. And all the while, Irina and Andriy must also bear the inevitably sparking love between them, love that seems to be hindered by their opposite viewpoints on their home country, Ukraine, which has turned its back on them with arms wide open to communism.

All the characters appear in Two Caravans are people desperate enough about their future to leave their home to pursue what a rich capitalist country has to offer, even those who hate capitalism. They all have the same dream, the same aim: money and prosperity, despite the different backgrounds and cultures. And Lewycka has successfully described their each characterization in vivid clarity, without leaving behind a single detail of what they think of, how they behave, and even how they talk in awkward English. There are also several more characters in the novel, but Lewycka doesn’t seem to have difficulty in portraying them all, and in a rudely hilarious way, too. What’s so bothering is, unfortunately, the evil character which is supposed to be the prime attraction. His characterization is somehow over the top, however still funny it may seem, and devilishly annoying to read.

The whole point of this book is, obviously, how we are caught in the middle of capitalism and communism, showcasing mostly how people struggle for prosperity in the land of capitalists, and what communism has caused us to suffer. It’s like there is no way out. Living in capitalism makes you act like zombies, while staying in communism only gives you starvation. Capitalism can promise you many things, anything you want, but you have to pay it with your blood, with your being a robot doing what people tell you to and, more often than not, without considering the consequences. People are running away from communism, but at what cost? It’s not only competition we have to deal with in a capitalist world, but the loss of our nature as human beings, too. Both capitalism and communism have their own negative aspects, although people think it is communism which is more dangerous to human kind.

Marina Lewycka, once again, succeeds in presenting to us all those things above in her hilarious, light comedy. She consistently refuses to use a heavy, serious narrative in speaking out her mind, but that doesn’t mean that she’s not serious at all. She implies her stern opinion by way of a painfully laughable comical story, with a complicated yet compact plot interesting enough to make me bear 1/3 of the book, which is quite boring. Thankfully, the bumpy road all the characters have to take along the rest of the book helps me enjoy it immensely. The surprises and quirky tension lacing almost every funny scene also assist the story to heighten up its great impression. Some scenes are too silly and slapstick sometimes, but I’ve learned that it’s been Lewycka’s typical characteristic in writing. I can’t complain. And she never cares to use such a beautiful, intricate language, either.  She doesn’t need to, because what she wants to say is naturally supposed to be expressed in satirically literal sentences, just the way they are. Two Caravans is indubitably a nice work of literary composition, inviting you to laugh at the world with its laughable story.

So, all things considered, I’d like to recommend this book to anyone who has a particular interest in issues of the world, but may want to spare themselves from the trouble of reading something heavy and depressing. Two Caravans is very enlightening, smart, funny, intriguing, thoughtful, and delivering its message in a subtle yet poignant way.

Rating: 3.5/5

fiction, review

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

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.

Rating: 4/5