Sunday, February 13, 2011

Ukrainian Tractors, Strawberries, and Glue

Several years ago, in a bookstore in Finland, I came across Marina Lewycka’s novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, which I devoured and absolutely loved. And it's clear that I wasn’t alone in my enthusiasm: according to the information on the jacket of one of her later novels, it was translated into 30 languages, sold more than 750,000 copies, and was nominated for both the Man Booker Prize and the Orange Prize for Fiction. The novel is basically the story of two long-feuding sisters who come together to deal with a family crisis precipitated by their aging father. The first paragraph of the novel sets the scene and gives a preliminary taste of Lewycka’s writing style:

“Two years after my mother died, my father fell in love with a glamorous blonde Ukrainian divorcee. He was eighty-four and she was thirty-six. She exploded into our lives like a fluffy pink grenade, churning up the murky water, bringing to the surface a sludge of sloughed-off memories, giving the family ghosts a kick up the backside.”

The central character, Nadezhda, learns about this by phone. Two pages into the phone call from her father, the following snatch of interior monologue summarizes her reaction succinctly:

“Did I hear that right? She sits on my father’s lap and he fondles her superior Botticellian breasts?”

Nadezhda is less than convinced by her father’s arguments that after he marries Valentina, the Botticellian love of his life, they will have wonderful evenings together, discussing art, literature and philosophy. (“He has already solicited her views on Nietzsche and Schopenhauer, by the way, and she agrees with him in all respects.”) Ultimately, Nadezhda is reunited by the Valentina crisis with her sister Vera, with whom she has not spoken since their mother’s funeral. Lewycka has a marvelous way with descriptive little exchanges that paint vivid pictures of her characters. For example, here is Nadezhda's memory of meeting her sister just after the funeral:

“… Vera looks me up and down critically.

‘Yes, the peasant look. I see.’

I am forty-seven years old and a university lecturer, but my sister’s voice reduces me instantly to a bogey-nosed four-year-old.

‘Nothing wrong with peasants. Mother was a peasant,’ four-year-old retorts.

‘Quite,’ says Big Sister. She lights a cigarette. The smoke curls upwards in elegant spirals.”

One of the things that Lewycka does especially well is to construct hilarious dialog involving fractured English by non-native speakers. Don’t get me wrong: from my own struggles with other languages, I am acutely aware how much better some of Lewycka’s fractured English dialogs are than most of my own attempts to communicate in anything other than English. To construct dialogs like she does, Lewycka has to have both an excellent command of English and an appreciation of how non-native speakers struggle to be understood. For example, after Nadezhda’s father marries Valentine, she wants an elegant car. He is only able to afford one that looks good in his new wife’s eyes but barely runs at all.  Naturally, it fails at an inopportune moment, leading to this exchange:

“Valentina turns on my father.

‘You no good man. You plenty-money meanie. Promise money. Money sit in bank. Promise car. Crap car.”

This style of writing is similar to skaz, defined by Benet’s Reader’s Encyclopedia as, “a term in Russian prosody designating the recreation by a narrator of indigenous oral speech in cadence, rhythm, and diction.” The entry goes on to list Nikolay Gogol, Aleksey Remizov, Mikhail Zoshchenko, and Nikolay Leskov as masters of the technique. In the preface of his English translation of Zoshchenko’s delightful collection, The Galosh, Jeremy Hicks describes skaz as “the use of an unsophisticated but highly colourful language put into the mouths of characters who themselves typically tell the story.” That seems like a fairly accurate description of some of the funniest bits of dialog in Lewycka’s book. In fact, it reminds me of some of the dialog in the 2005 movie, Everything Is Illuminated, based on the 2002 novel of the same name by Jonathan Safran Foer. One of my favorite parts of the movie is the description of the “seeing-eye bitch Sammy Davis Junior, Junior,” the replacement for an earlier, departed dog named Sammy Davis Junior.  As is the case in Everything Is Illuminated, the humor in Lewycka's book provides an entertaining conduit for an extremely serious basic story: in Everything Is Illuminated, this story is about a young Jewish man's search for the woman who saved his grandfather from extermination in the Ukraine during World War II, while Lewycka's novel shows how the turmoils of war, the events leading up to it, and its aftermath can affect the lives of two siblings so differently that they effectively grow up in separate worlds.

Lewycka has other novels, which I look forward to reading. One – Strawberry Fields – was given to me as a gift, and I have just started it.  I haven’t read enough yet to have a clear picture of what this one is about, but I can already tell it is going to be another hilarious read encapsulating a serious, deeply thought-provking basic story. In the first chapter, one of the characters – a woman from Kiev named Irina – arrives in England, where she is met by Vulk:

“He was the type Mother would describe as a person of minimum culture, wearing a horrible black fake-leather jacket, like a comic-strip gangster – what a koshmar! – it creaked as he walked. All he needed was a gun.”

Immediately, Vulk relieves Irina of her passport and Seasonal Agriculture Worker papers, saying:

“I keep for you. Is many bed people in England. Can stealing from you.”

Vulk drives Irina to where she will be working, and she is hungry:

“He had some potato chips wrapped in a paper bundle on the passenger seat beside him, and every now and then he would plunge his left fist in, grab a handful of chips, and cram them into his mouth. Grab. Cram. Chomp. Grab. Cram. Chomp. Not very refined. The chips smelled fantastic, though.”

After I finish Strawberry Fields, I plan to read Lewycka’s 2010 novel, We are all made of glue, at least in part for the same reason I picked up A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian in the first place: with a title so intriguing, how could you not read it?

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