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Thursday, January 12, 2006


A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian by Marina Lewycka
Publisher : Viking, an imprint of Penguin Books - 2005.
Pages: 324

Problematic father, feuding sisters, disputes over a will or lack thereof - that might sound like a script out of any typical family melodrama. So apart from the title what really sets Marina Lewycka's 'A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian' apart you might wonder.

For starters, it's just the way the story is told. Love makes a fool of the best of us. But in this case it is bringing out the Peter Pan in 84-year old Nikolai Mayevskyj, a Ukranian born widower. With a gold-digger at his heels and the pronouncements of re-marriage, sisters Vera and Nadezhda quickly need to put a lifetime of feuding aside to save him. That's largely because the new love of his life, is not only half his age with a fetish for cars and cash. But she is driven in her single minded determination of getting the best of life in the West, even if that means driving love-struck Nikolai to the grave.

Having survived the tough life in Ukraine, he almost sympathises with the 36-year old Valentina. With that he draws on his last reserves of savings, even stoops down to taking loans from his daughters to ensure that his new wife has nothing but the very best in life. So it is that when Valentina hollers:

"In former Soviet Union all cookers are white. Crap cookers . . . For civilised person, cooker must be gas, must be brown," Nikolai goes scurrying into his hidden treasure troves and when those run out, he simply finds a new-found joy - of a life lived on credit.

For Valentina nothing less than a new life in the West will suffice:
"A good life, with good job, good money, nice car - absolutely no Lada no Skoda - good education for son - must be Oxford Cambridge, nothing less."

In return for all of this Nikolai is to get a caring housekeeper coupled with the heroic sense of having rescued a beautiful woman from tragic cricumstances and poverty and of course access to the contents of those devastating D-cups.

As the novel progresses, he gets none of that. Watching his steady decline is the milder Nadezhda, a sociology lecturer married to a kind man. She has spent the better part of her life, saving every penny, helping her mother save every scrap, put her wardrobe together with all the seconds at Oxfam. All of that merely to see it all being shattered quick time by the every hungry Valentina.

Watching the rapidly deteriorating state of affairs, she unravels another known fact: "Marriage is never just about two people falling in love, it is about families." With that there is a re-connection of sorts with her sister. Together they embark in what is seemingly mission impossible - to make their father fall out of love.

Even as these battles play out pretty much in Nikolai's own backyard, he remains almost focused on his masterpiece - 'A History of Tractors in Ukrainian' - in which he speaks of the the larger ideals that show absolutely no signs of lasting around him.

This novel is not just fun but absolutely entertaining as well. No surprise that it made it so many award short and longlists including the Man Booker Prize 2005, The Orange Prize and bagged the SAGA Award for Wit and the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize for Comic Fiction last year.

For a novel that makes you re-visit so many family truths in one go, the long list of awards for this stunning debut are only likely to grow in 2006.