While A Short History of Tractors in Ukranian is ostensibly a comedy, and an effective one at that, it’s not without genre breaking moments, particularly in its portrayal of the aged. It’s the story of an elderly Ukrainian widower, a naturalised British citizen, who finds love, in the form of an economic migrant with “superior Botticellian breasts”, as told by his distraught daughter. At one point, the narrator comes to find her father trapped in his room, held at ransom by his blonde bride, and the description is bereft of the fluffy viewpoint one might expect from a comedy: “His glasses have slipped down his nose, and sit at a crazy angle. His shirt is unbuttoned at the throat, showing the white hairs that sprout around his scar. He has a sour, unwashed smell. He isn't exactly your Don Juan, but he has no idea”[pg 170]. “Old age is something we prefer not to think about, – says author Marina Lewycka, – or to look at too closely except through rose-tinted glasses. The way our society is organised, young people are often protected from the reality of the ageing process, and so it comes as quite a shock. And yes, it's scary. And it happens to us all. Be warned”. Prior to writing the novel, which has been shortlisted for this year’s Orange Prize, Lewycka researched and wrote a number of books for Age Concern, during the research for which she encountered “some wonderful, dotty, smelly and bloody-minded old people, and their exasperated relatives”.
A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian is a tender and funny book, but doesn’t pull its punches. Some of the finest comic moments come from the lips of the Ukrainian characters, garbling their English in rage. Valentina, the blonde gold-digger, who explodes into the lives of the narrator and her father “like a fluffy pink grenade”, angrily spills out classics like “No good meanie oral sex maniac husband”. There’s a tension in the comedy, not unlike that of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Everything is illuminated, where the pidgeon English of the main characters (coincidentally Ukrainian) drives the laughter. Lewycka, of Ukrainian parentage herself, dismisses the notion though that perhaps the comedy is a patronising one, a comedy that serves to confirm stereotypes. “Patronising? Come on, what would life be if we weren't allowed to laugh at human foibles?”, she responds, continuing: “When I wrote the dialogue, I just wrote what came into my head, it all just came out, and looking back I realise that what I have done, very often, is to translate literally what someone would have said in Ukrainian into English. There is always a 'clunkiness' about translated language which can be quite funny. I love reading travel guides and tourist information written in English by people whose first language is not English, and who do just that – translate literally. But I also found that once you abandon the rules of 'good English', it gives you a tremendous freedom to play with the language, and to be more vivid and expressive than 'good English' will allow. “
The obscure title refers to a book within the book, being written by Nikolai the narrator’s father, detailing the contribution of the humble tractor to modern Ukraine’s violent history. Missing the point completely, a reviewer for the august Yorkshire Post mused that if the Booker prize had a category for most boring title ever Lewycka would win. In fact the curious and absurd title fits the book perfectly, drawing the reader into a strange and disconcerting world of human weaknesses. Lewycka was born to Ukrainian parents in a refugee camp in Kiel in the aftermath of the Second World War, and her father has actually written a book on the history of tractors in Ukrainian, leading interviewers such as myself to splutter out “autobiographical?” eagerly. She’s tactful in her response – “Many of the events started in autobiography, but as the characters took on a life of their own, and became distinct from the people in MY life, so they created their own stories” – though one could imagine that inwardly she must be heartily fed up of questions that dwell on her life rather than her fiction. “My father did write a history of tractors,” she says of the title, “but his book is very different from mine. It is full of technical detail. But I thought the idea of someone writing this was so funny, and once I started looking into the world of tractor enthusiasts, I just got hooked. Tractors are like Mother: close to the earth, hardworking, and undervalued. They lack glamour, but they feed the human race, and they changed the world.”
And what about the Ukraine? It’s WWII and communist history is weaved throughout the story, but could it be just as easily interchanged with any Eastern European country? “Ukraine is a small country, – she answers, – most of whose history has been spent in the shadow of one imperial power or another. Ukrainians have never conquered anybody, or gone to war except in self defence (apart from the tragedy of internal strife). It is a rural country, dependent on agriculture, where most people live in villages or small towns, and are relatively unsophisticated. I think that does give us a peculiar innocence which we share with countries like Ireland and New Zealand. I tried to put that across especially in the 'tractor' episodes.”