Friday, July 01, 2005

Marina Lewycka: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian

Let's get one thing clear for a start: A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a novel. And it's a very nice novel.

Nice, you say? Hmm. When I was a lad, all those years ago, we were not allowed to use the word 'nice'. Nice, our teachers told us, was vague, imprecise, woolly. Worse, it was common, which meant that it was used by the lower classes. Char ladies on their way to work remarked on what nice day it was. 'Did you have a nice time, dearie?' 'Isn't he a nice boy?'

No, 'nice' wouldn't do at all for my mentors. But the fact is that it is a perfectly good word. It means something pleasant; unobjectionable; rewarding. And that describes Marina Lewycka's novel rather well.

I see from the cover of the book that it was shortlisted for this year's Orange prize for fiction. This is a prize for lady authors only, and judging by the shortlist it has a definite literary bias. So, in that case, this is a literary novel. (The author's tastes are also literary -- see the Orange prize interview with her.)

Well, fair enough. If there were more literary novels like this one, I would read more of them; but there aren't, so I don't.

Tractors (as I shall abbreviate it) also won this year's Wodehouse prize for comic fiction, which is why I came to read it. And, without wishing in any way to detract from the book, which is a considerable achievement, I have to say that it is not all that funny. Amusing, certainly; droll; and I did laugh out loud once or twice. But don't read it primarily in search of belly laughs and knockabout farce, because if you do you will be disappointed.

This book has every sign of being a novel which, if not directly autobiographical, certainly draws heavily upon the author's own background. Marina Lewycka was born of Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel at the end of the second world war. She grew up in England and she now teaches at a university. The first-person narrator of Tractors seems to have a directly comparable c.v. What is more, the author's father actually did write a history of tractors, which is what the father in the novel is up to.

While it is common for first novels, particularly those of the literary variety, to draw on personal experiences, this is a practice fraught with danger, as I have commented before. Even if people don't actually sue you, they can all too easily be alienated for ever.

This is true, oddly enough, even in the case of people who don't recognise themselves in what you have written; they can still take a dim view, and Ben Travers, the playwright, had a story to illustrate this.

Once, and once only, Travers put a character in one of his plays who was based on a real person: as his model he used a retired Colonel (name of Smith) who lived nearby.

After the play had been running for a while, Travers was dismayed to be stopped in the street by this very same Colonel Smith. 'Now look here, Travers,' said the Colonel, harrumphing fiercely, 'I've been to see this play of yours, and I must say I think you've gone too far. That character of yours, Major Huntington -- anyone can see that it's based on a real person.'

Travers held his breath, expecing a horse-whip to be produced at any moment.

'It's an unmistakable portrait of Brigadier Barnes-Meldrew,' said Colonel Smith. 'And using real people in a play is not the action of a gentleman, Travers. By no means, sir.'

Thus Travers, to his great relief, escaped both a horse-whipping and the libel courts.

My point is, however, that since Marina Lewycka is of Ukrainian origin, and almost certainly has close ties with the Ukrainian community in the UK, one must just hope that her family and friends are still talking to her.

What of the plot? Well, this is a novel about family affairs. It's about sisters who don't get on very well. And fathers who do silly things. And bossy, bottle-blonde, tarty-looking women who waltz in and start taking over.

The married narrator has an older sister, with whom, as I say, she does not see eye to eye; she also has a daughter. Her mother has been dead a couple of years, and her father, at eighty-four, falls in love with a quite unsuitable Ukrainian divorcee who is thirty-six. Who has had breast surgery. Father becomes besotted and plans to remarry. Daughters combine to prevent it. Complications ensue.

I am going to risk life and limb here, but I believe I am justified in saying that there are novels which women will enjoy more than men, and vice versa. And this is a novel principally for female readers.

I believe I am justified in making this generalisation about gender preferences for several reasons, not the least of which is evidence provided by my daughter, who is a psychiatrist. My daughter recently took her two young children, both under five, to a gathering where there were several other couples with children of a similar age.

What happened? Without any prompting from anyone, the little girls got together and started playing with dollies; and the little boys went off and did little-boy things, like climbing trees and throwing stones at policemen.

My daughter was, I think, thoroughly shocked by this display of gender-stereotypical behaviour. Particularly as the children all came from families where the husbands were new men and did the cooking and changed nappies, and the women held down professional jobs.

So, as I say, Tractors will appeal most to female readers. Blokes, I think, will also read it happily enough. But for quite a while they will be saying to themselves, This family stuff is all very well, but when is the story going to start? And, er, the family stuff is the story.

Potentially, the material on which this book is based is tragic and extremely dark. People who found themselves in refugee camps, and worse, in the second world war, did not have a happy time. Those experiences leave lifelong scars. So Marina was wise to adopt the approach that she has chosen.

And what is that approach exactly? Well, it is not frivolous. She does not try to turn these events into farce. But her writing is informed with a sense of the ridiculous; with an awareness that human beings (yes, even writers and narrators) sometimes do foolish things.

In the course of this novel, the narrator comes to learn certain truths about what happened to her family in the past -- truths which are quite appalling, and horrible. And she doesn't even learn everything. Her sister wisely tells her that some things are best left unknown.

The past is, I think, a major factor in this book. And the awful nature of what happened in the past is fully recognised. But the author also recognises that, as Marcus Aurelius pointed out in his Meditations, 1900 or so years ago, the past cannot hurt us unless we let it. It is the present that we have to deal with.

In her Orange prize interview, Marina tells us that she wrote several earlier novels (unpublished), which were, by her own admission, far too serious, with a Big Message. In the end, however, she seems to have found her true voice.

As I said before, this is a very nice novel, full of good things and with an optimistic ending. Who could reasonably ask for more?

13 comments:

Simon said...

Are you sure about the definition of "nice"? Look at this and be astounded.

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maxentia said...

I am very glad I found this blog. You say everything just as I felt about the novel, finished it today. Glad with the link to the interview too.

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Anonymous said...

This is definitely Chicklit. It never gets out of deep reduction first gear. I think I would have preferred to have received socks & undies than this book for Xmas. Certainly 6 hours of my life I'll never get back.

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Anonymous said...

I thoroughly enjoyed this novel and laughed from start to finish! I will look for more novels by Marian Lewycka. A complete change and I loved it!

Anonymous said...

I am reading this book. It a pleasant, easy reading book. About family conflicts, family past and relationships. However I find the cover on the paperback edition very deceiving. I didn't find the book funny. I don't understand how some people found it really funny. So I agree, nice it is.