Tuesday, August 16, 2005

I finished reading Marina Lewycka's A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian yesterday - once again, a huge thanks for the gift, Hugh!

At first, the book horrified me:

The character of Valentina, a 36-year-old Ternopil woman who has lured a recently widowed 84-year-old Brit into marriage, seemed so incredibly grotesque and yet so familiar that I came up with something like a tagline almost right away: "Multiply Valentina by a hundred million, then learn to ignore all these multitudes of unbearable women - this is what life in the former Soviet Union's like." I'm exaggerating, of course.

The character of Nikolai, the silly old man, made me wonder why there is no upper age limit for marriage.

I also kept choking on the Russian names used throughout this book about the Diaspora Ukrainians - how come it's Nikolai and not Mykola, Nikolai Alexeevich and not Mykola Olexiyovych, Nadezhda and not Nadiya, Mikhail and not Mykhailo, Vera and not Vira? I have nothing against Russian, or any other, names - but I expected that a character who spoke Ukrainian and, moreover, wrote non-fiction and poetry in this language, would use Ukrainian, not Russian, names for his family members; a character to whom it mattered what language his fake wife spoke on the phone:

'Aha. Telephone. Now here is a problem. Too much talking. Husband, brother, sister, mother, uncle, auntie, friend, cousin. Sometimes Ukrainian but mostly Russian.' As if he wouldn't mind paying the bill if it was for talking in Ukrainian.

I ended up liking the book, though:

I liked the consistency of Nikolai's character: he kept soiling himself pathetically every time Valentina acted up - but that wasn't due to old age alone. In his youth back in the Soviet Union, in order to avoid an undesirable job, he had lied to the authorities about being married to 'an enemy of the people' and, as a result, his mother-in-law was tortured during interrogation and nearly sent off to Siberia. Later, he deserted the Soviet Army and hid for a month at a Jewish cemetery, not because of his convictions, but because he couldn't stand marching around and fighting anymore. In the end, though, these cowardly actions re-united him with his family and saved his life.

Here're the musings of Nikolai's younger daughter, a post-war baby, and the response of her older sister, born in 1937:

When I was young, I wanted my father to be a hero. I was ashamed of his graveyard desertion, his flight to Germany. I wanted my mother to be a romantic heroine. I wanted their story to be one of bravery and love. Now as an adult I see that they were not heroic. They survived, that's all.

'You see, Nadezhda, to survive is to win.'

Funny, but if I hadn't read Masha Gessen's book last week, I might have missed this one meaning of Lewycka's novel: our parents' and grandparents' life-saving compromises, which, from certain perspectives, may look like skeletons in the closet... And who are we to judge those people, judge them, moreover, by the standards of our time, not theirs?

This is a slippery slope, and at some point it becomes really hard to blame Valentina for being what she is and using the methods she's using. There's no excuse for choosing to be a monster - and yet... The very positive final chapters of the book - very kind chapters, I'd say, even though Valentina does end up getting kicked out of Britain - do nothing but cement this rather unprincipled reaction to the novel and its characters.

So yeah, I don't agree with Andrei Kurkov when he writes that "[j]ust about everyone portrayed in [the novel] inspires the sympathy of the reader except the Ukrainians, legal and illegal. What we see are caricatures."

Sympathy or not, as the story develops, an evolution of sorts does occur in one's feelings towards the characters: something that no caricature could inspire.

And, caricature or not, the novel's characters definitely fit well among other warring relatives of world literature, including those from Ukrainian writers' works.

I retold the book's plot to Mishah and he said it reminded him of a number of Ukrainian texts we were required to read at school in the 1980s, in which family members hated each other's guts so much that compromise was never considered an option. Kaidasheva Simya (The Kaidash Family) - by Marina Lewycka's partial namesake Ivan Nechui-Lewycky - comes to mind first.

And I kept thinking of Jane Smiley's A Thousand Acres - and even imagined Nadezhda's "Big Sis" Vera as the aged Jessica Lange from the 1997 film based on Smiley's book...

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