Writer Marina Lewycka talks about Ukrainians in the UK, her writing and the modern era of dishonest people
In 2005, the Viking publishing house in Britain published Marina Lewycka’s debut novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian. It became a success, winning the Bollinger Everyman Wodehouse Prize and the Waverton Good Read Award, and getting onto the Orange Prize for Fiction shortlist. The book has sold over a million copies and was translated into 37 languages. Ukrainians disliked the book for two reasons: a bad Russian translation and their own laziness which prevented them from taking a look at the original and translating it correctly. Only now, eight years after it was first published, the bestseller will finally be available in Ukrainian. The Ukrainian Week talked to the author shortly before the release.
UW: Could you give a brief outline of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian?
– It’s the story of a family, an unhappy one, as are most families in literature. An elderly Ukrainian widower, Nikolay Mayevskyi, has lived in Peterborough since World War II. Two years after his wife died, he announced to his daughters that he was going to marry a younger woman. Sisters Vera and Nadia are shocked. They realize that it’s time to leave their squabbles behind and save him from a lustful gold-digger young enough to be his daughter. The woman recently arrived from Ukraine with her teenage son and nothing will stop her in her pursuit of the benefits of the Western world and her dreams. The elderly man in this tragicomedy is also pursuing his own eccentric dreams, writing a history of tractors in Ukrainian.
UW: Who or what inspired you to write this novel?
–There are many inspirations for every book. It could be a story or a tapestry of many stories about how people adjust to the times in which they live. I’m fascinated by the way the personal intertwines with the social or political.
My mother used to tell me a lot about her childhood in Ukraine and her journey to the West. A Short Story of Tractors in Ukrainian was initially supposed to by the story of my mother. When she was still alive, I would sit by her side and write down her memoirs with the thought in the back of my mind that I would someday write a book about her life. When I started working on it, I realized that what I had wasn’t enough. So, I used my imagination, which made things so much easier. If I had written the story of my mother, it would have been a completely different story - a much sadder one.
UW: You portrayed different generations of immigrants in your plot. Could you give a brief description of them? How do they differ?
– I grew up with the older generation of Ukrainians, the generation of my parents who mostly lived in northern industrial cities. They worked hard, saved money, dreamt that their children would achieve something in life, and tried to stay out of the purview of officialdom. Most of that generation is long departed. Their children, like me, married British people and integrated with the local society. For years the people of my generation had no contact with their compatriots. From 1989 onwards, no one was surprised about the presence of Ukrainians or the sound of the Ukrainian language in Great Britain. Stories about girls coming from Ukraine in search of a “Western” man are not something that I have made up. Many come to study or find a job. Over the past two years, Great Britain’s immigration laws have become so draconian that it is almost impossible for non-EU citizens to enter the country.
UW: Do you think migration is traumatic for one’s convictions?
–I think migration is a very useful starting point for a writer. It’s as of it allows him/her to observe things from outside. As a child, I dreamt of integrating into the community and being the same as other kids from my British environment. What does this entail? You observe and try to copy them. Then, when the time is right, you describe everything. As for me, it is no coincidence that so many writers were outsiders in the societies they described.
– I think people read the book because it’s funny and serious at the same time. The novel was particularly popular in Germany and Canada, as well as many East European countries – particularly Poland and Serbia.
UW: Just like anything popular, your book irritated many people. Which reactions surprised you most?
– Quite a few British thanked me; they were very interested in learning something about Ukrainian history. Comments from Ukrainians on websites were totally different: “Nobody will read anything new about Ukrainian history in this book.” Some even came to meetings with me in England to reproach me. They must have thought that the characters in Tractors are not the kind of Ukrainians that the world should see. They don’t want to be represented in the West by a woman with huge breasts and an incontinent old man. The worst review in the English press came from writer Andriy Kurkov. Actually, I was really disappointed to see that Ukrainians see this as a personal insult. I hope they will be able to turn a blind eye to the words “in Ukrainian” in the title and see what is worth seeing. What I like in the British is their sense of humour and their ability to laugh at themselves.
UW: I think that Ukrainians did not like the book because they read it in Russian. The translation by Valeriy Nugatov fell short. Did you authorize it?
–My command of Russian is not good enough to check the translation. After all, the novel was translated into 37 languages. I can’t check all these translations physically. Ukrainian publishers had a chance to translate it long before it came out in Russia. But they decided that it was not interesting.
UW: Your fourth novel will soon be published in Ukraine. Could you tell us about it briefly?
–My last novel is about what happens when the long-established leftist values of the 1960s encounter the new worldview of the financial world. In Various Pets Aliveand Dead, 29-year old Serge, who grew up in a commune, works at an investment bank and hides this from his parents, Marcus and Doro. He doesn’t even consider introducing to them his new girlfriend, a beautiful but slightly clumsy colleague, Marushka from Zhytomyr. The boy’s parents are now retired but still stick to their ideals. His annoying sister Clara works as a teacher at a school that does not have a very good reputation and is trying to forget her past, while their stepsister Uli-Anna with Down’s syndrome seeks freedom. The book also describes various pets which can’t stand this life.
UW: Why did you choose such a sad epigraph from Gogol for this novel?
– “We live in new times – the era of heroes is gone, it’s the time of dishonest people,” Nikolai Gogol wrote in 1842. What makes the epigraph interesting is that the point is the same 150 later, and at any time in history. No-one has come up with anything new in villainy. The financial fraud that Gogol described in the Dead Souls is very similar to that in the current banking crisis.
UW: What do you think of multiculturalism and tolerance in today’s Europe, and Britain in particular?
– I was lucky enough to grow up in the post-war period that was relatively open and tolerant. People were recovering from the terror of the war and the understanding of human unity was stronger than ever. Of course I was teased at school for not being very friendly, but children always tease others. It’s like adults grumbling about newcomers. There was no such thing as an organized attack against immigrants or people of different races, cultures and religions in the Great Britain of that time. I think that the life of an immigrant is much more difficult today. The media does not portray them at their best and people are more prone to violence.
UW: The only thing that both Tractors and Pets share is eccentric characters. They all seem negative in one way or another – or maybe it’s better to say unusual. Is there a reason for this?
–I think books about superheroes that are 100% positive are incredibly tedious. It’s the Hollywood rather than the literary niche. The reviews of all four of my books sometimes criticize my excessive use of negative characters. I strive to research human complexity, stupidity and weakness in various exciting aspects.
UW: How do you picture a hero of our time?
– Oh, I think the era of heroes is long gone – it’s now the time of people who lack virtue.