Only Odessa: On Ian Ross Singleton’s “Two Big Differences”

February 4, 2022   •   By Herb Randall

Two Big Differences

Ian Ross Singleton

Odessa Mama

Whoever hasn’t been
to beautiful Odessa
has never seen the world …
Who cares for Vienna or Paris —
they’re just silly little puddles!
Only Odessa
is paradise.

¤

THE UNIQUE LANGUAGE of Odessa, that languid city where acacias and chestnut trees adorn the Ukrainian shore of the Black Sea, is the heroine, villain, and love interest of Two Big Differences. To be sure, there are human characters here too: contradictory, fascinating, frustrating, messy, damaged, and sometimes unlikable, but each one is a manifestation of that charming rogue of a city. Ian Ross Singleton’s novel, while an affectionate tribute to Odessa, is most successful as a witty, tender reflection on the ways in which language and identity intersect and diverge.

Zina, embodying the “Odessa Mama” of the famous prewar Ukrainian-Yiddish song, equally entices and antagonizes Valentine, the young American man who meets her in Detroit, where she washes ashore in 2013. She is there on a half-hearted search for her mother who abandoned her and her father in Odessa years earlier. Zina, like her continually dying and reborn Odessa, is always shifting, reinventing, restless. Slightly older than Valya (Zina quickly switches to the Russian diminutive for Valentine), more experienced and world-wearier, she dominates him at every turn, alternately taunting or taking pity on him as her mood and desires dictate.

Naïve Valya is quickly smitten with Zina, despite her treatment of him and her obvious attraction to women. In the United States on a work visa but eventually forced into “voluntary departure,” Zina brings Valya with her to Odessa in the spring of 2014, just as the Maidan Revolution in Ukraine is in its turbulent denouement. Valya’s elementary Russian and his social awkwardness doom his stay there, and his yearned-for reunion with his own Odessan family roots and hopes for a meaningful relationship with Zina end disastrously.

Valya falls equally, though more lastingly, in love with Zina’s city and language, Odessan Russian. “Her tongue I tasted. It was spicy like Odessan chestnuts, as Odessan as the wisps of grassy seaside air. I loved her tongue.” This play on words, tongue and language, and Valya’s fixation on both of Zina’s, is especially apt because in Russian as in English, the two words have this same double meaning. This playful image returns at the end of the novel, though, with a heartrending twist.

As the characters of Two Big Differences are pulled back into Odessa’s orbit, it is this “spicy” language of the city that Singleton masterfully employs to bind the characters together while also alienating them from each other. The slipperiness of language, its tantalizing impreciseness, permeates the novel, whether in the bewildering array of names and diminutives employed for each character, in Valya’s clumsy attempts at ingratiating himself with Zina’s father and others he meets in Odessa, or most affectingly, in a jumbled telegram Zina sends to her mother in her imperfect English with Russian phrasing and transliterated names for the Cyrillic punctuation marks.

Valya personifies Odessa’s allure to (and more rarely, acceptance of) outsiders, a fact since its founding in 1794 by decree of Catherine the Great. Valya’s estranged father had moved to Detroit from Odessa and, having failed to pass on the language to his son, did succeed in bequeathing Valya that same yearning for a homeland other than his place of birth. At 25, with no money, fancying himself a socialist, haphazardly learning Russian on his own, living in a room in a shared hovel he calls a kommunalka, Valya yearns for a life of substance. Enter Zina, earthy, vivacious, unafraid to speak her mind in any language. Despite Valya’s earnest efforts to learn and speak her language, he is never able to overcome his sense of existing in the shadows between two very different places, which ironically, as narrator of much of the novel, is precisely where he belongs: “Nobody in Ukraine could tell the part that happened in English. Nobody here can tell the part that happened in Russian, Odessan Russian. My English and my Russian are all this story has.” The longing to belong to a place he cannot ever fully understand or be embraced by is further reflected in his halting, frustrated relationship with Zina.

The novel takes its title and opens with a quote from Isaac Babel, the early 20th-century Soviet Jewish author of Odessa Stories whose writing, more than any other, captures the soul of the city and has become its profane patron saint. Like Babel, Singleton lingers lovingly over the ugly side of a city that combines gorgeous seascapes and quaint streets with a troubled history and its inhabitants’ celebrated penchant for cutting corners, sharp dealing, or outright lawlessness in its seedier districts. (Odessa’s current mayor, in fact, is an infamous criminal.) Readers familiar with recent Ukrainian history will nod in recognition with many telling, unflattering details that color this portrait of Odessa and lead inexorably to the novel’s distressing conclusion.

Singleton, also like Babel, doesn’t shy away from the notoriously difficult task of rendering humor from one language and culture to another. Odessa is famed for its jokes, or anekdots, many of which feature the elderly Abramovich and wife Sarah, usually ending with a barb. Zina delights in sharing these anecdotes with Valya, unconcerned that he often cannot understand their meaning. Valya himself, in a pitiable attempt at acceptance, creates his own Odessan anecdote for Zina’s father, which predictably falls flat. These anecdotes sprinkled throughout Two Big Differences, while sometimes puzzling, are essential for understanding both the playful nature of the language of Odessa and what it reveals about the relationship between its characters.

Abramovich offended his friend. “What do you want me to say?” he asked the friend.

The friend said, “Say, ‘I was wrong. You were right. I’m sorry.’”

Abramovich said, “I was wrong? You were right? I’m sorry.”

The punch line depends entirely on the intonation of the person telling the joke. The ambiguity of communication via anecdote, its intentional encouragement of misinterpretation or misunderstanding, is sometimes precisely the point, as it often proves between Zina and Valya. The ability to tell and to grasp these anecdotes serves as a handy sorter, a linguistic sifting of unwanted foreign particles.

Particularly striking in Two Big Differences is how language and identity are considered by some as inseparably bound. As one American interrupts Zina to answer a question about the language spoken in Ukraine: “Russian. I mean, some in the West of the country speak this weird language, a mix between Polish and Russian. That land has been speaking Russian for a long time. They really shouldn’t even be a country.”

Notably, this colonialist dismissal of Ukrainian as a distinct language, and the equivalence asserted between the language spoken by some Ukrainians and their feeling of nationhood is one of the primary justifications employed today by Russia in its efforts to protect those who speak Russian in Ukraine.

Singleton, in countering this view, deftly illustrates through Valya how speaking a language often has no bearing on identity itself. Despite his earnest striving to acquire the Russian of Zina and his own father, Zina considers Valya a “failure of an Odessan” while at the same time understanding that he doesn’t belong in America. Valya himself desperately wants “to be more than simply an American. He wanted to have a hyphen before that descriptor,” yet ultimately finds that his love for the language cannot confer even that token binding. With Ukraine again in the news due to renewed Russian military action against its neighbor, Two Big Differences is an urgent, heartfelt meditation on how a common language can be used to divide just as easily as unite.

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Herb Randall’s first short story, “Pictures of Galina,” was recently published in Apofenie. His writing has also been featured at Punctured Lines. He lives in northern New Hampshire.