Author: Fielding, Heather
Date published: July 1, 2011
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 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 which growth toward self-awareness enables assimilation to the social whole: instead, here, characters learn to sympathize and identify with Valentina, but then they withdraw sympathy and refuse identification too. The bildungsroman's drive toward subjective fullness is bound to fail: no character's consciousness can hold together the inclusive and exclusive versions of the nation that compete across the novel. The novel cannot manage the contradictory ideological pressures it has brought to bear at the level of character: to assimilate, the characters must forget what they have done to Valentina.
Since the novel's characters cannot fully meet the requirements of the genre, Short History can fully commit itself to the assimilatory logic of the ethnic bildungsroman only at a level beyond character. To earn its unambiguously happy ending of assimilation, the novel intensifies its drama of identification, transforming it from a relationship between characters in one text to a relationship between texts. In its final moments, Short History compares its characters to those of a much more established example of the ethnic bildungsroman, Hanif Kureishi's Buddha of Suburbia. Short History identifies itself with Buddha and, in the process, earns the uplifting ending of full assimilation at an intertextual level.
Although the novel ends by embracing conviviality, assimilation, and identification, to get there it must forget Valentina's deportation and the melancholic exclusions that have made conviviality plausible. On the melancholic side of national identity, a guilty version of Britain refuses to face up to the shameful history of its empire and the pain of its loss and is therefore "phobic about the prospect of exposure to either strangers or otherness" (Gilroy 99); such a version of the nation anxiously protects a nostalgic, homogeneous, purified version of itself. One of Postcolonial Melancholia's most significant contributions to postcolonial studies is how it traces the legacy of empire across the whole of contemporary immigration discourse in Britain, even where such a context might seem remote. After empire, Gilroy contends, it is "the infrahuman political body of the immigrant rather than the body of the sovereign that comes to represent all the discomforting ambiguities of the empire's painful and shameful but apparently nonetheless exhilarating history" (100): the immigrant figures empire and its loss, even when that immigrant is not actually connected to the history of the empire at all-when, for example, the immigrant is white and from Eastern Europe. Melancholic discourse projects a nostalgic vision of a homogenous, pastoral nation as the authentic Britain, and in Short History, the immigrants that can safely be incorporated into the nation are those that can be fit into such a model. Nikolai, the narrator's father, loves agriculture and comes from a peasant background; he can be compatible with melancholic Britain. Valentina is too modern, too invested in shopping, too sexualized, too new; she threatens this nostalgic, scared, exclusive nation.
Short History makes a significant contribution to the discussion initiated by Gilroy's Postcolonial Melancholia. Unlike the texts Gilroy analyzes, Short History cannot be understood as primarily either convivial or melancholy: one mode does not dominate, because the narrative requires both melancholy and convivial conclusions. Here we have a text that dramatizes precisely the awkward, conflicting coexistence of these two modes. Short History fails to choose between the melancholy and convivial, in the process suggesting that both understandings of national identity shape the culture's sense of what it means to be British, no matter which version one prefers. Gilroy's theory is unabashedly polemical and activist: it is an argument for conviviality and against melancholia as modes of British identity. Short History does not argue for one side and against the other, but shows that this irreducible doubleness is effective: it actively shapes what it means to assimilate. The novel cannot choose one side or the other: the meaning of Britishness cannot be decided at the individual level.
Conviviality and Identification
For Gilroy, conviviality is ultimately defined in terms of sympathetic identification: the ability to put oneself in another's place, across conventional lines of difference. His book begins by exemplifying this concept with the story of Ingrid Nicholls, a black British woman who needed a leg amputation but who could only receive a pink prosthetic through the NHS. Public discussions of her case, Gilroy argues, show conviviality because "the shameful refusal of a matching limb was described as an affront to her dignity" (xiii): people imagined how she must have felt rather than accusing her of working the system or of not being fully English. Because they thought about what it would be like to live as Mrs. Nicholls, people were horrified by the institutionalized racism her story makes clear. Such acts of conviviality happen every day in the postcolonial city, Gilroy argues, when people from diverse cultural backgrounds interact with each other and see themselves inhabiting a shared space. Gilroy's most fully explored example of conviviality is Sacha Baron Cohen's Ali G, who literalizes this sympathetic identification. Ali G's imitative act is convivial because it involves "imagining oneself as a stranger in a limited and creative sense" (70), which in turn makes it impossible to believe in "the assertions of ethnocentricity and untranslatability that are pronounced in the face of difference" (8). Ali G represents, for Gilroy, not blackface exploitation, as some critics have alleged, but a critique of the idea that culture is property. Everyone's culture can be translated and made to mingle in the mongrel daily life of the metropolis; no culture can be so foreign as to be unimaginable, and thus everyone can identify with everyone else. This strategic and sympathetic form of identification necessarily requires the nation to abandon the idea that "the national collective was bound by a coherent and distinctive culture" (90), to accept that national culture cannot be homogenous, is owned by no one, and is constantly being redefined.
Gilroy's theory is brazenly humanist, depending as it does on the idea that everyone can identify with everyone else and that cultural differences are neither absolute nor defining. It is not surprising that conviviality's drama of translation, sympathy, and identification might be explored by a literary genre underwritten by a similar humanism-the bildungsroman, which, as Franco Moretti argues, offers a narrative of socialization: "each moment strengthens one's sense of belonging to a wider community. Time must be used to find a homeland" (19). Sympathy and identification play a defining role in this social assimilation: the subject's individual particularity must be made recognizable and typical. In order for that to happen, he or she must undergo an interior Bildung, by developing a full realist interiority, which translates difference into sameness.1 In Jane Austen's Persuasion, for example, Anne Elliot overcomes her initial alienation from the shallowness of her society by identifying with her future husband, by imagining how he thinks, even when its consequences are damaging for her: "She understood him. He could not forgive her" (84). Her difference from the society around her gets translated, through an intensifying interiority, into a renewed and solidified sociality when she imagines what Wentworth is thinking and puts herself in his place.
Precisely because of its logic of identification, the bildungsroman has been soundly critiqued in ethnic studies as an ultimately conservative genre that subsumes any kind of difference within a homogenous national identity: identification makes ethnic difference disappear.2 From such a perspective, it is difficult to imagine how an ethnic bildungsroman-a genre whose telos is the assimilation of the ethnic subject to the nation-might be compatible with postcolonial conviviality. But Gilroy's humanist polemic opens up an alternative reading of the genre. His version of identification registers a particularly flexible kind of sameness, a sameness that is perhaps heterogeneous: when we imagine ourselves in each other's situations or identify with one another, we acknowledge that we are all British, and what it means to be British becomes correspondingly more capacious and different from itself. Convivial identification involves an empathetic openness that does not assume or move toward homogeneity. Short History is driven by just such a logic of identification, sympathy, and openness, which ultimately transforms the social whole created by identification into a constantly redefined community. The novel seems quite invested in a convivial version of national identity, though it simultaneously pulls toward another model that is decidedly less open and sympathetic.
Short History follows the generic conventions of the bildungsroman, in that its Ukrainian characters move toward the telos of national assimilation by developing progressively more realistic forms of interiority as the novel goes on. As these characters "grow" into fully developed subjects, they become able to identify with each other. To become British, in the novel's world, is to be constantly open to identifying with other subjects. To become British, in other words, is to internalize conviviality. Valentina, the gold-digging Ukrainian who comes to England to marry the narrator's father, is initially presented as a classically flat villain: "Her gait is lazy, contemptuous...The mouth curls into a pout that is almost a sneer" (68-69). The novel eventually humanizes Valentina by giving her a more complicated set of motivations. She is transformed from a greedy gold-digger into a disappointed, exhausted single mother who works days in a nursing home and nights in a hotel: "Her syrup-coloured eyes have a heavy, glazed look. Today is her first day off work in two weeks. The black eyeliner has smudged and run into the wrinkles below her eyes. If I'm not careful, I will begin to feel sorry for her" (101). The narrator begins to see Valentina as a fleshed-out subject and to "feel sorry for her," which establishes at least the form of intersubjective reciprocity Gilroy discusses in the case of Mrs. Nicholls's treatment by the NHS, although Nadia is not willing to sympathize entirely with her stepmother. The grammar of the narrator's phrase suggests what is at stake in sympathy: she is on the verge of feeling for Valentina, a reaching out that requires Nadia to substitute herself for Valentina.
The novel traces a similar development with Nikolai, who, according to family legend, went to Germany during the war, following his daughter and wife, who had been taken to a forced labor camp there following the German invasion. But another, equally plausible story emerges, one that makes her father fit into the same category as Valentina: he went to Germany for a lucrative job opportunity during the war. At the end of the novel, Nadezhda develops a more nuanced view of her family story, in which her mother and father are normal people: "I wanted my mother to be a romantic heroine. I wanted their story to be one of bravery and love. Now as an adult I see that they were not heroic. They survived, that's all" (284). Nadia, "as an adult," realizes that they are just like her; like Valentina, Nadia's parents become "normal" people, doing what anyone would do to stay alive. Nadia can see herself in any of their lives.
As the novel prepares us for the assimilation of Nikolai and Valentina by making them available for identification, Nadia, the narrator, simultaneously grows and matures by wanting to identify with them. In classic bildungsroman fashion, this subjective development is in turn a prerequisite for assimilation into the social body of the nation. Towards its conclusion, the novel moves into an allegorical mode that makes her union with the nation explicit, as Nadia realizes that she stands in for postwar immigrant Britain. She is "Peacetime Baby," named with the Ukrainian word for "hope," pointing not only toward "those Nadezhdas they had left behind" but also toward the new country, which "had just been victorious in war"; thus, "[a]lthough times were hard, the mood of the country was hopeful" (289). Nadezhda becomes an allegory for an England that can include her family and their generation of traumatized Ukrainian refugees. The process of becoming British here involves a movement from youthful ignorance to maturity, signaled by Nadezhda's growing ability to identify sympathetically with others. As she begins to see other people as full subjects and to imagine herself in their situations, Nadia becomes an exemplary British subject.
Valentina plays an essential role in the novel's concluding celebration of national assimilation, although at the level of the plot, she is about to be deported. Nadia and Nikolai have assimilated by coming to a fuller understanding of Valentina and her motivations, by seeing her as a full subject. They have become British by learning how to identify with Valentina; for Valentina to then be excluded from the nation would seem to undo the novel's entire logic of assimilation. Figuratively, the novel prepares us for her assimilation by adding on yet another level of identification: she becomes a new version of Nadia's mother. While Nikolai has compared Valentina to Ludmilla throughout the novel, it is only at the conclusion, when Valentina bears a miraculously beautiful and very English Ukrainian child named after Margaret Thatcher, that the comparison seems like anything other than a lust-motivated delusion. The parallel extends even further when Valentina's husband-an engineer, like Nikolai-arrives in England to help her move back to the Ukraine; Nikolai gives him one of his patents and the manuscript of his crowning intellectual work, A Short History of Tractors, to take back with him to the Ukraine, making Valentina again parallel to Ludmilla. The two engineers miraculously fix her always-broken car, and they depart, as Nikolai points out, on the "[s]ame journey, other direction" (282): they are following the same route Nikolai, Ludmilla, and Vera did on their journey to England sixty years prior. This flurry of identification makes it seem that Valentina is participating in the reconciliation of the novel's end and provides affective compensation for the novel's ultimate xenophobic premise that she is an invading other who must be forced out. If becoming a realist subject with a rich interiority, with whom other subjects can identify, is the measure of becoming British here, then Valentina would seem to have assimilated.
However, because Nikolai and Nadia develop precisely by sympathizing and identifying with Valentina, they cannot fully come to terms with the fact that they have collaborated with her deportation and with the xenophobic version of the nation that undergirds her exclusion. In order for them to have "earned" assimilation, Valentina must have assimilated as well because they assimilate by realizing that she is not really so different from them after all. There is, thus, a limit beyond which these characters cannot have a full, introspective, self-aware interiority; there is something they cannot realize about themselves. It is this basic contradiction that makes the novel's celebratory conclusion so strange: the nation has become inclusive, the characters have grown and turned into sympathetic and sympathizing subjects, yet all of this is made possible by an exclusion and a refusal of sympathy. National identity is defined in Short History in terms that require a block in the subject's self-understanding. In order to assimilate to this nation, the character simply cannot achieve the full realist Bildung; she cannot fully apprehend her place in the social whole.
This contradiction helps to explain how this novel that explicitly pushes its characters toward developing interiority came to be roundly criticized in reviews for shallowness: "the novel is not so much written as constructed," alleges Andrey Kurkov in The Guardian, and "[w]hat we see are caricatures." Kurkov is responding, I think, to the way the novel both pushes interior development and pulls back from it at the same time. He cites, as his prime example of this shallowness, an epithet-laden model of characterization, which invokes Valentina by mentioning her "superior breasts" (2), the father by his "squishy squashy" (177), and Vera by her stiletto heels. In all of these cases, the novel pushes back against these objectifying epithets that flatten characters into stereotypes by suggesting that everyone is growing and developing. But Kurkov is right to an extent: the novel's mode of characterization, which persists all the way through to the final paragraph's attention to Nikolai's naked buttocks, displays resistance to the idea that character inheres in the interior or mind, not in an exterior sign or stereotype.
Structurally, the novel also works against the interiority required by the bildungsroman by following a Bergsonian, objectifying model of humor, which depends on characters behaving the way they do because they fit into a type, not because of any deep, interior responsibility. According to Bergson, we are amused when subjects behave like objects, mechanical structures that do not allow them to adjust to the particular demands of their local environment and immediate circumstances. Bergson's classic example is a man who is running along, sees something in his way, and falls over it. Bystanders will laugh at this man because, rather than just going around the obstacle, he "continued to perform the same movement when the circumstances of the case called for something else" (Bergson 9). Short History is a comic novel because its characters constantly seem to lose their subjective ability to respond to circumstances; they cannot behave like thinking, psychological subjects because they are trapped in ridiculously rigid stereotypes. Valentina, for example, persuades Nikolai to buy her a Rolls Royce, although the only one he can afford is an old, broken down one that will not run. With her deep, "New Russian" love of prestigious western consumer goods, she will not allow him to purchase a similarly priced Ford Fiesta that actually runs. Valentina is certainly not the only character to be trapped in the confines of a ludicrous stereotype. Nikolai, who continues to believe that Valentina loves him after it becomes obvious that she only wants money, behaves alternately as a sex-crazed old man and an absentminded intellectual. Vera rushes to his house early in the morning to confront Valentina, and when she tells him that she must take him away, or "this vulture will peck out your liver" (173), he begins a long discourse on whether it is a vulture or an eagle that pecks out Prometheus's liver-while, in the mean time, the two women engage in a fistfight. Ultimately, this kind of humor functions to distance us from the characters by making interiority irrelevant and inaccessible: these characters function as objects put into situations to which they cannot adapt.
But whereas Kurkov views this shallowness simply as Lewycka's failure as a writer, it seems more productive to understand it as the effect of an ideological contradiction between genre and subject matter that has implications extending far beyond this individual novel.3 Its turn away from interiority, depth, and responsibility is a way of coping with the contradiction between the inclusive and exclusive models of the nation: if Valentina is just a greedy, oversexed puppet of capitalist Russia and not the fully fleshed out subject she sometimes seems to be, then it is all right to send her away. If Nadia is at least on some level just a collision between a liberal sensibility and a situation demanding a conservative reaction, then it is all right that she becomes Mrs. Flog-'Emand- Send-'Em-Home of Tunbridge Wells: she is just a type, not a full realist subject. But even further, this lack of complete interiority prevents the novel from making its characters understand the conflict it has diagnosed at the heart of British national identity. The novel's conflict about whether the nation is defined exclusively or inclusively takes place outside of the apprehension of the characters or even the narrator. The ideological doubleness in this meaning of the nation functions, instead, within genre: in order to commit to the version of the nation that follows from the structure of the ethnic bildungsroman, the novel must make itself and its characters forget the deportation that makes assimilation possible.
This ideological forgetting culminates in Short History's concluding scene, where the novel celebrates Nikolai's assimilation after Valentina has left. In its final paragraphs, the novel dramatizes its commitment to the genre of the ethnic bildungsroman and its ethic of inclusivity through an extended allusion to Hanif Kureishi's 1990 novel The Buddha of Suburbia. This allusion aligns Nikolai with Haroon, the protagonist's father in Kureishi's novel, and replicates the bildungsroman's subjective identification between characters at an intertextual level. At the novel's conclusion, Short History moves beyond the consciousness of its characters to establish a final form of convivial identification-between two novels. This identification is made plausible by the many similarities between the novels: both feature old, oversexed, immigrant men whose adult children are embarrassed by them and their love affairs, which provide the impetus of each novel's plot. Each affair is inappropriate-Nikolai with the gold-digging young immigrant, Haroon with the oversexed mother of one of his teenage son's friends-and requires the father to exploit his ethnicity (Valentina is the last in a string of Ukrainians to attempt to use Nikolai for British citizenship; Haroon's white lover gives him the idea of transforming himself into the Buddha of suburbia). Each is a comic novel in the bildungsroman form, narrated in first-person by the secondgeneration British, adult child, who gradually comes to a new respect for the too-ethnic father and simultaneously figures out a way to be British. Both novels begin outside of the diverse metropolitan areas Gilroy celebrates-in a small Yorkshire town and in the outer suburbs of London, respectively-but move to an urban center for their happy endings.
The most crucial of these parallels occurs in the last lines of Short History, which situate Nikolai, who has finally accepted for himself the normative lifestyle of an old British man and moved into a retirement home in liberal, intellectual, diverse Cambridge, in the famous moment of naked yoga that opens Kureishi's novel.
We find him crouching down on all fours, completely naked, on a mat which he has placed in the centre of the floor in front of the window....Next, still crouching, he stretches out one skinny leg towards the back of the mat, then the other, and lowers himself down until he is lying on his stomach on the mat. He rests there a moment, panting a little. The skin of his shrunken buttocks hangs loose, pearly white, almost translucent. Now he pushes himself up off the floor with his forearms, staggers to his feet, and folds his hands palms together, eyes closed, as if in prayer. Then he pulls himself up to his full crooked height and stretches both arms out, reaching as high as he can into the air, breathes deeply, and turns toward us in all his shrivelled, aged, joyful nakedness. (Lewycka 294)
A few paragraphs into Kureishi's novel, we see the protagonist's middleaged father, Haroon, in a similar pose, in his underwear, as he practices for his debut as the Buddha of suburbia: "He was standing on his head now, balanced perfectly. His stomach sagged down. His balls and prick fell forward in his pants. The considerable muscles in his arms swelled up and he breathed energetically" (4). One passage is situated at the beginning, one at the end, but each initially focuses on how age has desexualized the father's body, making the romances that begin each of the novels all the more bizarre and inappropriate: elderly Nikolai is "shrunken," "skinny," and "shriveled"; Haroon's middle-aged stomach "sagged." Each passage proceeds toward an affirmation of the father's still-vital physical, sexual, and interior identities, emphasizing Nikolai's "joyful nakedness" as he stretches "as high as he can" and Haroon's "considerable muscles" as his muscles "swell up." Haroon might be slightly less naked than Nikolai in his moment of naked yoga, but he is still shockingly exposed, as his wife points out when she enters the scene: "Oh God, Haroon, all the front of you's sticking out like that" (4). The two passages are narrated in similar ways as well, with a purely external observation of the father's body and movements, which are in turn signs of the internal quality of resiliency. If to become British is to imagine yourself in the position of someone who seems unlike you, the novel does exactly that, transforming its odd Ukrainian dad into a familiar character from British literature and situating itself within a genealogy of immigrant fiction in Britain.
This concluding citation of Buddha is also crucial because that text epitomizes the kind of inclusive national community toward which the novel has been moving with its increasingly sympathetic portrayal of Valentina. Buddha's culminating moment of assimilation is its final paragraph, where Karim, the narrator, attends a dinner to celebrate his father's marriage to his mistress. The final scene collects the major characters together in a happy and unlikely union: Karim, his brother, his father, his white future stepmother, their friend and new Indian immigrant Changez, and the Japanese prostitute he patronizes. It is with this motley group that Karim has his epiphany about what it means to be British: "And so I sat in the centre of this old city that I loved, which itself sat at the bottom of a tiny island. I was surrounded by people I loved, and I felt happy and miserable at the same time. I thought of what a mess everything had been, but that it wouldn't always be that way" (284). With this emphasis on what surrounds him, what enables him "to locate [him]self and learn what the heart is" (283-84), Karim shows himself to have achieved the double task of the bildungsroman protagonist: he matures by locating himself in a social whole. He locates himself in three communities: "people I loved," "this old city," and the "tiny island." "People I loved" becomes a more flexible, inclusive, true version of ethnic identity, which the novel exposes as something subjects are made to perform and so should at least reap profit from. The group of "people I loved" is, in turn, shaped not only by the city but also, more surprisingly from a writer who has identified himself as a Londoner rather than an Englishman, by the nation's island boundaries as well. (For this famous claim, see "Some Time with Stephen" 133. See also Ball 9 and Weber 5.) Karim becomes fully English, where being English has to do with an open-minded, inclusive, multi-cultural love that can accommodate Indian immigrants of different generations, classes, and sexual orientations; a Japanese prostitute; and a middle-aged, social-climbing white woman. That Karim's epiphany alludes to one of literature's most famous bildungsromane and its epiphany about the relation between self and nation-Stephen Daedelus's map of the world-extends Short History's genealogy further into history and tradition.
What results is a vision of England that encapsulates Gilroy's conviviality, a diverse model of culture "distinguished by some notable demands for hospitality, conviviality, tolerance, justice, and mutual care" (99). At the end of Buddha, being English means loving and caring for a group of people, whose personal relationships both allegorize and flow through the nation. Were Short History to fully follow this model of reconciliation, Valentina, the golddigger, would necessarily stay in England: she would be integrated into this reconstructed, flexible ethnic community and, therefore, into the nation. This final group in Buddha has at its core the father and his mistress, in an unlikely marriage that nonetheless succeeds. If Short History followed this model, the improbable relationship between the old man and the young woman would succeed, and the resulting community would be more inclusive and unified- and British-as a result of it.
Victims, Heritage, and Melancholic Britain
Short History is pulled, on one side, toward a convivial understanding of national identity, in which Nadia becomes English by identifying with Valentina, who can in turn be accepted into the nation, which proves itself to be receptive to historical change and open to ongoing redefinition. But despite the novel's convivial logic, it is simultaneously pulled toward what Gilroy would define as a melancholic version of national identity. On the latter side, a homogeneous, nostalgic nation is created by deporting Valentina, who is otherwise the locus of the identifications that pave the way for a convivial and inclusive national assimilation. The immigrant who does get to become part of this nation-Nikolai-is eligible to do so because he can be imagined as part of a nostalgic, purified, pre-war Britain. Valentina, by contrast, becomes entirely new and threatening: the new immigrant, the representation of the new post-Soviet Eastern Europe and new modes of immigration to the UK.
In Gilroy's analysis, postcolonial melancholia has two components: first, it involves mourning an old, homogenous British culture that is threatened by immigrants who never inhabited such a place. Second, melancholia manifests in cultural documents that project an image of Britain as victim rather than an imperial aggressor; his primary example is Linda Colley's 2002 work of popular history, Captives: The Story of Britain's Pursuit of Empire and How Its Soldiers and Civilians Were Held Captive by the Dream of Global Supremacy, which, as the title suggests, argues that Britain was the victim of its own imperial expansion. Such melancholic works often imagine World War Two as the archetypal moment that established British national identity: the British were attacked and became the morally upstanding victims of a violent, obviously evil aggressor, and they showed remarkable resolve and unity in the face of trauma ("the spirit of the Blitz"). These citations of World War II simultaneously long for the return to an earlier moment in history, when "national culture-operating on a more manageable scale of community and social life-was...both comprehensive and habitable" (Gilroy 89).
All of Nikolai's ethnic eccentricities can be understood as evidence of his agrarian, pastoral, rural identity, something quite compatible with the nostalgic, heritage-centered version of Britishness Patrick Wright calls "Deep England."4 Nikolai and his wife identify strongly as peasants, as representatives of an agricultural, pre-modern Ukraine from before the forced collectivization and industrialization initiated by Stalin. In England, they settle in a small agricultural town that resembles prewar Ukraine: "My mother came from the steppes, and she felt at ease with these open horizons. The Ukrainian flag is two oblongs of colour, blue over yellow-yellow for the cornfields, blue for the sky. This vast, flat, featureless fenland landscape reminded her of home" (11). Nikolai and his wife have recreated peasant Ukraine in rural Yorkshire. Another book might have imagined him as out of place in contemporary Britain-an ancient, Old World immigrant who cannot keep up in the fast-paced, financial economy of twenty-first-century London. But in Short History, his eccentricities make him available for national assimilation because he is totally attuned with Deep England, its "merger of history and landscape" (Wright 74), and its emphasis on the rural, agrarian scene. He can fit into melancholic England, with its desire to "get back to the place or moment before the country lost its moral and cultural bearings" (Gilroy 89-90); he is compatible with a nostalgic vision of an older, stronger nation, and his assimilation does not significantly disrupt its homogeneity.
Nikolai can also fit into easily nostalgic accounts of Britain's World War II victimization, as a scarred, traumatized survivor of German aggression and Soviet imperial expansion. One significant thread of the novel is devoted to convincing Nadia that the climax of Nikolai's experience of the war-what happened to him, her mother, and her sister in a German labor camp-needs to be forgotten, not retold and relived. In not fleshing out what happened in the camp, by leaving this event as an indescribable horror, the novel prompts our now-familiar stock of horrifying images of Nazi camps and constructs an absolute dichotomy between victim and aggressor, good and bad. Gilroy's conception of postcolonial melancholia helps us to conceptualize the work that such a black-and-white narrative about the assimilation of Eastern European war victims can do in contemporary Britain: the imaginative assimilation of Nikolai in the novel might be understood as a way of identifying the British with the victims, not the perpetrators of empire, presenting them as victims of German aggression, not aggressors against their colonies. That Nikolai is racially coded as white-and the final moments of the novel emphasize just how "pearly white, almost translucent" (294) he is-makes this procedure plausible: through him, white Britain gains credibility as victim rather than aggressor.
Valentina cannot be as easily understood in terms of World War II victimization or Britain's nostalgically imagined past. With her obsessive, stylish consumption, she instead represents the colonization of England by a current, fashionable American consumerism. She has been tainted by commercialism and "the distinct synthetic whiff of New Russia" (2). She strives to define herself as modern, western, and anti-peasant; she insists on the most prestigious consumer goods, on "modern cooking" of the boil-in-bag variety, on buying a Rolls Royce even if it does not run. Everything about her is fake and purchased: she dyes her hair blond, and even the "superior Botticellian breasts" (3) that attract Nikolai to her turn out to have been purchased. She is not Ukrainian in the sense that Nikolai is; she comes from a Ukraine that is just part of Russia, and even Russia is just part of the globalized, capitalist West. Ironically, she is too westernized and not Ukrainian enough to be amenable to a melancholically imagined England.
Structurally, Short History absolutely excludes Valentina from its vision of the Ukraine. The text utilizes a bifurcated narrative structure that Rosemary Marangoly George has identified as a hallmark of the immigrant novel, so that its present is a frame tale that provides opportunities for accounts of the family's history: in the framing present, Nikolai and his family deal with Valentina, and within this frame, Nikolai, Vera, and Nadia narrate episodes in the family's past. The family's British present is therefore juxtaposed with a Ukrainian past, a Ukraine defined in a limited and exclusive way, by a certain period of history. Structurally, the Ukraine the novel interpenetrates with contemporary England is an old, twentieth-century one: it is the Ukraine before and during the famine, during the purges, during the war. Valentina is made to exist in contemporary England and then made to disappear; the Ukraine she goes back to is not the novel's Ukraine. Excluding her as not ethnic enough, the novel stabilizes a historically closed definition of what it means to be Ukrainian.
The problem with Valentina's Ukraine is that it is, by definition, a purely contemporary one that lacks access to its own history:
Clearly this Valentina, she is of quite different generation. She knows nothing of history, even less about recent past. She is daughter of Brezhnev era. In times of the Brezhnev, everyone's idea was to bury all gone-by things and to become like in West. To build this economy, people must be buying something new all the time. New desires must be implanted as fast as old ideals must be buried. That is why she is always wanting to buy something modern. It is not her fault; it is the postwar mentality. (154-55)
The novel fulfills this proposition about Valentina's generation by not ever presenting her back story, a narrative decision that is all the more strange since the novel begins with Valentina divorcing her Ukrainian husband to marry Nikolai and ends with her reunion with the Ukrainian husband. There is no background to make this story reasonable: we do not know if she left because she fought with her husband, fell into bankruptcy in the Ukraine, or simply wanted greater economic opportunity. The condition of being ahistorical is, in turn, the condition of being inassimilable: Nikolai assimilates by telling his history and the history of the Ukraine, and Nadia assimilates by learning that story. Nadia, born in England just after the war, could be a member of Valentina's postwar generation (she is ten years older than her step-mother), but the difference between them is that Nadia internalizes her family history. Valentina, by contrast, resembles nothing so much as an empty hole: "her disappearance left a gaping void in which questions wheeled around like startled birds" (202). The new generation of immigrants is extirpated from the novel's idea of history and therefore is necessarily left out of this version of an assimilation narrative. The nation that Nikolai and Nadia defend by securing Valentina's deportation is one composed of immigrants, but it has been purified by the exclusion of the newest immigrants, who are imagined as categorically different and unfamiliar even to their countrymen.
Like Nikolai, Valentina is often presented as a victim, but hers is a victimization for which contemporary Britain should feel guilty; the nation cannot identify with her as victim. While Nikolai is presented as a victim of imperialism, Valentina is a victim of contemporary immigration laws in Britain, which require her to marry a British citizen if she wants a work permit, and the structure of the global economy, which has made the Ukraine poor and the UK rich. When Nadia imagines her as a victim, she does so specifically in terms of her economic position: she is desperately tired from working two jobs. She is a victim of Britain and the rich west in general, not of Britain's World War II enemies. Her full assimilation would emphasize Britain's culpability in an economic system that drives poor Eastern European women to prostitute themselves in the West because they cannot support themselves at home. Thus, although the novel seems to be moving toward Valentina's assimilation, and indeed although its logic of identification requires that she be assimilated, it cannot fully, unambiguously execute that ending.
Valentina's deportation, twenty pages before the end of the novel, makes this equivocation between conviviality and melancholy starkly clear. This scene is directly parallel to the concluding one in which the father's assimilation is celebrated when he moves into a Cambridge retirement home and takes up yoga; Valentina's departure is the first of these two conclusions-"[c]an this really be the end," wonders the narrator as her car disappears from view (280)- and is presented in joyful terms. Up to this point, the novel has fantasized about deportations in terms that resonate with Solzheneitsyn's accounts of Soviet arrests in The Gulag Archipelago:
I imagine the knock on the door in the night, the heart jumping against the rib cage, the predator and prey looking into each other's eyes. Gotcha! I imagine the friends and neighbours gathered on the pavement, the Zadchuks waving hankies which they press to their eyes. I imagine the cup of coffee, still warm, left on the table in the haste of departure, which goes cold, then gathers a skin of mould and then finally dries into a brown crust. (Lewycka 147)
Nadia's husband sums up this view: "Deportation's a cruel, nasty way of dealing with people" (147). But the deportation that actually takes place in the novel is presented as a happy affair, a celebratory family reunion that makes it seem as though Valentina is going back to a wonderful life: "Everybody exchanges hugs and kisses...Father and I come out onto the road to wave to them as they disappear round the corner and out of view" (280). All of the novel's conflicts disappear in a moment of reconciliation. Of course, this moment is fantasy: even in the novel's own account, deportations are not such happy affairs, and if Valentina was so happy in the Ukraine, she would not have tried so desperately to stay in the UK, nor would she have journeyed there to begin with. The novel contradicts itself here, revealing its failure to decide whether Valentina should be assimilated or not.
Short History's contribution to contemporary understandings of British national identity lies in its inability to choose between the convivial and the melancholy. From Gilroy's activist standpoint, Lewycka's novel is certainly a failure, since it does not commit to an inclusive version of the nation. But that is what is so interesting and remarkable about this text: intentionally or not, it forces us to see the coexistence of these two competing versions of national identity. The novel shows the pressures working against convivial, inclusive Britishness, and provides an account of how a melancholic, exclusive, nostalgic understanding of national identity might be attractive even to a self-consciously liberal university professor who comes from an immigrant background (a descriptor that applies equally to author and narrator). Even a celebration of one character's assimilation-Nikolai's-can become complicit with a melancholic version of national identity. One might go so far as to say that Lewycka's novel fills in a gap in Gilroy's theory, one that he intentionally leaves open: he militates on behalf of conviviality, and even occasionally finds convivial residue within cultural documents that do primarily melancholic work. His brief is to make conviviality into a reachable, nonutopian version of antiracism, a way of thinking that can accomplish what purist understandings of multiculturalism could not: conviviality comes from the ground up, and is already experienced every day by residents of the postcolonial city. He does not, therefore, discuss how conviviality might fail, how it might be rendered incomplete or complicit with melancholia. His conviviality is an emergent, fully practical alternative to melancholia. Lewycka's novel, by contrast, situates conviviality within the context of melancholy, shows how conviviality can be co-opted by its opposite, and explains how melancholia can be attractive even in contexts where one might expect conviviality. Her novel-however unconsciously-expands the conversation begun by Gilroy's Postcolonial Melancholia.
But Short History is a novel, after all, and not a work of postcolonial theory; as such, it adds another dimension to Gilroy's theory by exploring the particular narrative effects of the awkward coexistence of conviviality and melancholia. As a bildungsroman, the novel aims for the telos of assimilation, in which a character's internal Bildung enables him or her to achieve a place in the social whole. However, assimilation would seem to require two contradictory narrative paths: one in which Valentina is welcomed into the fold and one in which she is dramatically expelled. What results is an ethnic bildungsroman that can make its characters assimilate to two opposed strains of national subjectivity and authorize two competing visions of England. But this bildungsroman can succeed-and in the process powerfully dramatize Gilroy's thesis-only by preventing these characters from seeing the contradictory structure they have enacted. The novel produces the convivial payoff of a happy, inclusive, empathetic national subjectivity grounded in a xenophobic, exclusive model of the nation. That celebratory, multicultural conviviality, Short History suggests, is possible only within the containing, protective structure of a nation that has very much not come to terms with its imperial past. That this peculiar combination of assimilation and deportation can be found in other contemporary ethnic bildungsromane-Rose Tremain's Orange Prize-winning The Road Home (2007), for example, culminates in a celebration of assimilation also made possible by the immigrant protagonist's departure from Britain-suggests that Short History models how the genre is adjusting itself in response to changing understandings of what it might mean to become British.
Short History is perhaps best understood as a fantasy that England might be able to celebrate an empathetic, liberal identity, without thereby working through its unresolved, defensive, historical guilt. The literary form adequate to this historical problem is, then, an ethnic bildungsroman that fulfills the expected narrative reconciliation and assimilation without relying fully on the individual subject's Bildung to provide its closure, which can happen only at the level of the narrative, not the character. As Fredric Jameson has argued with respect to British modernism, national allegory emerged as a significant literary form when imperialism diminished the possibility of understanding character as self-sufficient; presenting characters as allegories for nations emerges as a way to achieve closure when realist characters themselves are no longer inadequate (Fables 96). Short History suggests, perhaps, that in the age of postcolonial melancholia, characters can represent the nation only by not understanding themselves: character development and narrative closure come fully into contradiction.
PURDUE UNIVERSITY, NORTH CENTRAL
1 In Moretti's grand narrative, the bildungsroman emerges as a major form of European fiction as a response to capitalist modernity's destruction of traditional, stable social structures, which gave rise, at the level of the subject, to "unexpected hopes, thereby generating an interiority not only fuller than before, but also...perenially dissatisfied and restless" (4).
2 Lisa Lowe's Immigrant Acts offers a compelling argument that the bildungsroman, with its one-directional movement toward assimilation, can accommodate ethnic subjects only by disposing of ethnic difference. She argues, moreover, that scholars have an ethical responsibility to read ethnic bildundsromane against the narrative of assimilation, for the ways that they break its univocal structure and show that the legacies of racism and colonialism disrupt its linearity. Her thesis continues to inform how scholars analyze ethnic bildungsromane; see, for example, the 2006 special issue of Contemporary Literature on migrant writers, which features several essays (see those by Eric Hayot and Vera Eliásová, especially) that read ethnic bildungsromane for how they disrupt or complicate the narrative of assimilation.
3 The critique of shallowness in contemporary fiction-especially immigrant fiction-has become quite well established. James Wood, for example, uses Zadie Smith's White Teeth to diagnose a crisis in character in the novel; he stakes out a more learned and ambitious version of Kurkov's thesis. Smith, Wood writes, deals with characters that "are not really alive, not fully human." At the end of his essay, Wood longs for White Teeth's Irie to become like David Copperfield, a character who is fleshed out enough not to "[disappear] under the themes and ideas"-the protagonist of a nineteenth-century English bildungsroman. It seems highly possible that a certain strain of postcolonial melancholia underwrites this criticism of shallowness, which sounds quite like nostalgia. I would suggest that these critiques of shallowness could be more profitably transformed into analyses of what this mode of characterization can tell us about national subjectivity in contemporary Britain.
4 Wright's "Deep England" is an endangered, pastoral fantasy grounded in World War II and proven by personal experience: "To be a subject of Deep England is above all to have been there" (85). Wright's theory of heritage in British national identity plays an influential role in Gilroy's melancholia thesis and describes Nikolai's relation to the nation with great accuracy.
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