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Undermining Stereotypes and Putting Flesh on the Bones of Insider Trading

January 10, 2013 - Chris Riley - Bez kategorii

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Part 1: Undermining Stereotypes

A conversation with Marina Lewycka, bestselling author of A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian.

Interviewer: Roman Kabachiy

ROMAN KABACHIY: You first came to Ukraine in 2005 and again visited in 2011. Did you see any changes in the country?

MARINA LEWYCKA: When I came to Ukraine and saw the beautiful city of Kyiv and the educated youth, I knew that they could be citizens of any other developed country. But I also visited the countryside and I was truly shocked by the reality I saw. The area itself is beautiful, but when you look deeper, you see poverty: the elderly live in dismal conditions, and are terribly lonely.

Towns in Ukraine’s east, when I was there five years ago, are terrible. For the English in general, Ukraine seems very far away and is not a country of any particular interest. The English associate Ukraine with football and boxing: only a select few know something about the works of Andrey Kurkov (a Ukrainian contemporary novelist – editor’s note).

The Washington Post described your book A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian as “a charming, poignantly funny first novel” which “weaves in Ukraine's troubled history”. And while reading the book, we do indeed sense a dose of irony towards the picture of Ukraine that your parents might create. Why is this picture so archaic and reactive for you, who grew up in England?

My parents’ Ukraine was the Ukraine of my childhood. I would treat it like a fairy tale and the more I tried to understand it, the more disoriented I would become. The story about the tractors is a story of an old Ukraine (the title of the book misled even Amazon.com, which placed the book in the “Agriculture” section – interviewer’s note). And the point in question is not only infrastructure and new buildings, but also people’s mentality.

My parents’ generation believed in such values as solidarity. They would support each other, and shared strong family ties. In modern Ukraine we see that interpersonal relations have changed significantly, although this is not only a characteristic of Ukraine. This is now a common phenomenon everywhere.

A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian was heavily criticised in Ukraine because of the poor quality Russian translation. What did you make of this?

I was surprised and disappointed as Ukraine was the only country in Europe where my book was not translated into the national language (the book was translated into 36 languages – interviewer’s note). The main pretext was that apparently the Ukrainians would not learn anything new from this book. Anyway, if the Russians wanted to translate it into Russian, then why not?

Can you see a qualitative difference between Ukrainian immigrants in England today, and your heroine Valentina, who is a personification of post-Soviet kitsch?

Valentina is only one of the characters in my book and she is not representative of the whole of Ukraine. Valentina's character was based on a woman who looked just like her – a blonde, dressed in gaudy clothes and wearing strong make-up. This woman was a teacher. In the 1980s, my hometown of Sheffield maintained partner relations with Donetsk – also a mining town.

Many people from Donetsk would come and visit my town. Quite often I was invited to meet these delegations. Also, the story of a wedding with an “old and rich” guy is a typical one. After the publication of the book I received plenty of letters from readers telling me that they also encountered similar stories. When I finished writing the book, I came across a brochure with the following slogan “Ukrainians – let’s go West!”

At the moment, many Ukrainians work in Great Britain, in agriculture where they have been sold as slaves. In my second book, Two Caravans this issue is examined, as I came to a realisation that had my parents not left Ukraine shortly after the Second World War, I could have also been among today’s immigrant workers. In the book, two characters are positive: Andriy – a boy from Donbas, the son of a miner, and Irina – a girl from Kyiv, the daughter of a teacher.

In this book, you can read about different levels of Ukraine’s existence and of course there is a love story. But if those two had stayed in Ukraine, they wouldn't have had the chance to meet. They had to leave their country to find something in common and fall in love.

In addition to Ukrainians, there are other nationalities in your book Two Caravans: Africans, Poles and two Chinese women. Do Ukrainians feel good within a cosmopolitan group?

Of course. In fact, the inspiration for the character of the African was my daughter’s husband from Malawi, and for the Chinese girls it was a girl with whom I work at the university. Ukraine, despite its location in Eastern Europe and close relations with Russia, which actually resembles the relations between England and Scotland, is, in the end, a European state. Kyiv is a completely Western European city.

Spike Magazine wrote that some of your “explorations of identity are genuinely insightful”. Do you want your new book Various Pets Alive and Dead to bring about similar controversies as your last book did?

This new book will be less controversial. It is also a story about immigration, although not about physical labourers forced to do the worst possible work. It is about the employees of the financial sector. The main heroine is a girl who becomes part of the global elite.

The book is about the financial sector which is present everywhere – in the United States, Africa, Australia, Singapore – and which is above everything. This girl from Ukraine also wants to be part of this elite. All I can tell you now that her story is a sad one.

When Ukraine was celebrating its 20th anniversary of independence many people said that we have already been through half of the 40 years of Moses’ walk, but that a lot is still ahead of us. Is it worth waiting another 20 years for the “bright future”, or should we take things in our hands right now?

Ukraine is not in isolation and not everything depends on it. The problem is that Ukraine is Russia’s neighbour. Should Russia be more “European”, then Ukrainian-Russian relations would be more pleasurable. However, the situation is really bad. When in Great Britain we read about Russian-Ukrainian relations we feel as if we had been stabbed in the heart. The truth is that our dreams for Ukraine were those of real independence. I would love to see Ukraine in the European Union. This would give rise to a real civil society and democracy.

This interview first appeared in Nowa Europa Wschodnia (www.new.org.pl).

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

Part 2: Putting Flesh on the Bones of Insider Trading

A review of Marina Lewycka's most recent book Various Pets Alive and Dead.

Reviewer: Chris Riley

To begin Marina Lewycka’s fourth novel is to be plunged into the seemingly glamorous but mystifying, murky world of the financial markets, which most of us are already predisposed to view with suspicion thanks to what we know about insider dealing and its consequences from the news.

In the tradition of Charles Dickens, Lewycka proceeds to damn the traders of the financial industry as Dickens damned the factory owners of his day for their pursuit of profit at the expense of humanity. She does this by introducing us to a network of individuals who, it becomes clear as the novel progresses, are very much glued together by personal and political history and whose actions have consequences with lasting effects on more than their immediate circle.

The centre of attention, although not quite the hero, is Serge, a Cambridge graduate and mathematical whizz who has, unbeknown to his ex-hippie, ex-commune living mother, Doro, abandoned his meagre stipend for a salary of 90,000 pounds plus and an aspirational London lifestyle supported by the financial markets. To his still idealistic mother, this would be a massive sell out of everything he was brought up to value, although the values are hers, and seem to both Serge and the reader quaintly out-dated. Through his eyes and the eyes of his complicated extended family we zigzag across the British North-South divide and through the recent history of the 1960s through to the 1990s.

The novel is structured in bite sized chapters entitled by each of the four members of Serge’s immediate family: himself, Doro, his elder sister, Clara, and his reticent father Marcus who gets to have the last chilling words.

Humour abounds, some satirical, the mores of the financial world being an easy target, and some much broader, particularly in the depiction of the primary school where Clara works, situated, in stark contrast to the affluence of the City, on an urban council estate in Yorkshire. Generally this is a welcome contrast but the description of the loan shark from First Class Finance visiting the SPA (Single Parents’ Avenue) is depicted in terms so farcical that it stretches credibility to breaking point.

Although Lewycka’s primary focus is on British life and culture which she depicts in all its complexity, she provides vignettes of the international nature of traders and in the character of Maroushka, the object of Serge’s mainly unfulfilled desire, provides a portrait of a new Eastern European, ruthless in her determination to be rich and capitalist, having known too much of what it was like to be poor and communist.

The success of this novel is that the connections between the figures flickering on the trading floor screens and the ways they effect all different types of people, is brought into perspective with great humanity. All in all, Marina Lewycka's fourth book is well worth reading for the questions it asks rather than any answers it provides.

Marina Lewycka was born in a refugee camp in Germany in 1946 and moved to England with her family when she was about a year old. She has spent most of her life since then trying to become a writer, and finally succeeded in 2005 with A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian which has sold more than a million copies in the UK alone. This was followed by Two Caravans in March 2007, We Are All Made of Glue in July 2009 and Various Pets Alive and Dead in 2012.

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