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  • Assimilation After Empire:Marina Lewycka, Paul Gilroy, and the Ethnic Bildungsroman in Contemporary Britain
  • Heather Fielding

Marina Lewycka's 2005 novel, A Short History of Tractors in Ukrainian, was long-listed for the Booker Prize, short-listed for the Orange Prize, and quickly became a bestseller. Written by the British-born daughter of Ukrainian immigrants, this comic novel tells the story of a gold-digging Ukrainian migrant, Valentina, who tries to obtain citizenship by marrying Nikolai, an elderly Ukrainian who has resided in Britain since World War II. Nikolai's adult daughter, Nadezhda, narrates the novel in the first person and satirizes Valentina's absurd, aggressive consumerism and Nikolai's pathetic lustfulness. Short History's plot shows the narrator gradually beginning to sympathize with Valentina while cheerfully engineering her deportation. The incongruity between these two directions comes to a climax at the novel's end: Valentina is indeed deported but also figuratively included as a necessary part of the assimilated family, which, in the final scene, recognizes itself to be fully, normatively, happily British. The joy of its ending requires the main characters to have accepted Valentina and welcomed her into the family and nation, but the novel cannot fully accept such a conclusion. Britain rejects Valentina and draws her into its folds at the same time; it needs her and needs to expel her. Despite the affective confusion this double gesture entails, the novel is nonetheless compelled toward both of the opposed endings of deportation and assimilation. In the process, the novel struggles between two opposed understandings of national subjectivity: is the nation defined inclusively and flexibly, by a welcoming ethic of hospitality? Or is the nation defined [End Page 200] exclusively and rigidly, in a threatened, defensive version of what it means to be British? In Short History, neither version of Britishness wins; the novel is stuck between them.

In many ways, Short History is a thinly disguised memoir and the work of an inexperienced author who is not always in control of her text. The incoherence of the novel's ending is something another writer might have resolved stylistically or thematically, but its theoretical implications are not any less provocative or interesting because they may be unconscious. Short History's competing models of British identity resonate with, but also require us to rethink, what Paul Gilroy has recently theorized as the divergence between "convivial" and "melancholic" versions of British national culture in the aftermath of empire. In the convivial mode, British identity is grounded in the practical, everyday encounters with diversity that characterize cosmopolitan life; such a version of Britishness is open and empathetic and embraces "the processes of cohabitation and interaction that have made multiculture an ordinary feature of social life" (Gilroy xv). Gilroy's conviviality has identification at its heart: in the convivial city, inhabitants can imagine themselves in each other's situations, no matter what cultural differences might stand in the way. Short History's narrator develops by doing just that: by opening herself to and sympathizing with Valentina, that threatening other. The narrator's capacity for sympathy and identification gradually increases across the novel and signals that she is in the process of becoming a full realist character driven by interiority. With this developmental structure, Lewycka's novel follows the formula of the ethnic bildungsroman or assimilation narrative, in which an ethnic character "grows" along a trajectory that culminates in his or her assimilation to the nation. As Lewycka's characters learn to identify with each other and gain self-conscious, realist subjectivities, they prepare themselves for assimilation to a nation defined by conviviality.

Thus, Short History seems to be committed to a convivial version of national identity, as it moves toward sympathy, identification, and assimilation. But even though Nikolai and Nadezhda begin to make themselves British precisely by learning to sympathize with someone unlike them—Valentina—they finally assimilate only after she is deported. The novel opens up an ideological chasm: assimilation requires these characters to welcome Valentina into a convivial nation, but they must also then harden themselves toward her and, ultimately, expel her from a melancholic nation. The resulting narrative puts pressure on the bildungsroman's conception of character, in...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1934-1512
Print ISSN
0039-3827
Pages
pp. 200-217
Launched on MUSE
2011-08-04
Open Access
No
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