A brief note about recent events: This review was written back in early January. I am so horrified and saddened by the recent invasion of Ukraine by Russia, because no one should have to fear for their safety or flee for their life. Singleton’s Two Big Differences takes place in Odessa in 2014 during another wave of political violence, and in some ways, anticipates the current violence in Ukraine through his exploration of these past political dynamics. Please let’s keep those in Ukraine in our thoughts, and do everything we can to support an end to this conflict and promote peace. –KL
I’ve never been to Ukraine, but it has loomed large in my imagination because my great-grandparents grew up in a small town near Kiev. My mother’s grandfather Joseph fled to America to escape the Czar’s army in the early 1900s and his future wife Mary followed him to Minneapolis, showing up out of the blue one day in the shoe store where he worked. They were married three weeks later. As such, their lives had the quality of a fairy tale, and the motherland from whence they came was shrouded in mystery for me: full of soldiers, borscht, and suffering. But what do I know? I’ve never been to Kiev nor Odessa.
So when I picked up Ian Singleton’s luminous novel Two Big Differences, I hoped that maybe I could travel vicariously to a place in the world that I have many questions about. I was pleasantly surprised to find that while we see and hear and smell Odessa in gorgeous detail in this dreamy novel, the most palpable experiences I had were that of the two main characters’ inner landscapes—as they each set out to discover a sense of belonging in their lives. After meeting and becoming fast friends in Detroit, this pair journeys to Odessa together—fueled by necessity and desire. Odessan native Zina has been searching for her lost mother and tries to reconcile herself to the city that hardened her into a nihilistic spitfire; by contrast, American Valinka tries to connect to his family’s cultural heritage in Odessa and to speak Russian well enough that he can shed his mantle of foreigner.
Throughout the book, language becomes a third character in Zina and Valinka’s relationship, which is fraught with romantic, political, and existential entanglements. While I have little in-depth knowledge of Ukraine’s political conflicts over the last decade between pro-Russian separatists and Ukrainian nationals—nor of the details of the Russian army’s current threatening show of military force at the Ukrainian border—I could understand in Two Big Differences that the daily existence for Odessans in 2014 was a precarious one. Singleton renders this city as a trove of cultural history discovered through personal stories and linguistic anecdotes that is also a ticking time bomb: Odessans wait for the other shoe to drop, wait to be swindled, wait for more violence, wait for the moment when they will lose everything.
At one point, Zina gets a job at a library called the Echo Archives to translate and salvage personal stories of Odessans who survived life under Soviet control “that which should not have been preserved, which should never have existed, which should never have taken place . . . Moments and history that should not have been the way they were, but which ended up that way.” As she contemplates translating a simple bit of text from Russian to English, she ruminates on the word “safety”: “It was literally without danger. It made her think that danger, shorter and easier to say, was the natural state in the Russian-speaking world. Without danger was climate control. It was unnatural.”
The city of Odessa itself becomes a dreamscape for drunken escapades, for petty swindles, and for the all-too-real political violence that transpired in 2014—and has threatened the safety of Ukrainians since. As Zina reads the personal accounts of the Echo Archives, she thinks about how this history helped her find herself in Odessa:
All those texts, that building in the center of Odessa, it had been a ground for her, a place to land. She would miss hearing the steps of her coworkers throughout the building. Rebuilt after the Great Patriotic War, its floors had held for decades because they could bend. As she walked across those floors now, she thought of how she would miss the sounds of typing that made her long to sneeze from paper dust. The real archive was chattering from within cardboard boxes. The real archive was diaries, old and wrinkled and often misunderstood in the chattering.
Beyond the many layers of official history that frame the city are the suppressed stories of survivors, dissidents, and suffering that line the walls, existing just under the surface of what is accepted and talked about and validated as the historical truth.
Two Big Differences also paints an interesting parallel between Zina’s experience as a foreigner in America with Valinka’s in Odessa. For example, she notes:
In Detroit, they had also updated their language to make a new meaning. Ben’s band planned a concert to mark the ninety-sixth anniversary of the October Revolution. They called the concert an “action.” Those who would be on the platform, lower than a stage, were “actors,” not performers, with the latter word’s hint of exploitation. Those beneath were “witnesses” instead of audience members. There would be no catharsis for the witnesses, only a call to action.
Zina’s observations of her time in Detroit crystallize both a feeling of otherness and a wry critique of the young American activists who celebrated socialist ideas without fully appreciating the legacy of Soviet rule in Ukraine. In her eyes, the activists become inadvertent mockeries of idealism taken to its most earnest and unpleasant extreme.
Valinka experiences his fish-out-of-water existence in Odessa primarily through his linguistic foibles. For example, “unable to remember the word for fruit, once I said, I love the chocolate nipple. I meant to say, I love the chocolate with juice.” Valinka also sees language as his way to get closer to Zina, and his linguistic hurdles as obstacles between them: “I was still nothing more than an American to her even after I had come to her city, lived in her home, eaten her food, spoken her tongue . . . My sweat had begun to drip on the floor. At the sweaty party, I said to somebody, I’m excited to be in Odessa. I had looked up the word ‘excited’ online… instead of I’m excited to be in Odessa, I had said, I’m horny to be in Odessa.”
His stumbles are endearing and all too true. These moments took me immediately to memories I’d made in foreign countries when I realized just a few seconds too late how far what I’d said was from what I intended. As Valinka struggles to learn idiomatic Russian, Zina uses well-hewn anecdotes to show him how far he is from fully understanding the true experience of an Odessan. When Valinka’s wallet is robbed of its cash, Zina jokes that she did it: “I’m a thief, like all Odessans. Zhvanetsky says, ‘For us in Odessa, if it’s quickly picked up, it doesn’t count as having fallen.’”
In its best moments, Singleton’s Two Big Differences reminds me of Milan Kundera and of the displacement and disorientation his emigrant characters face in his novels. In Ignorance, Kundera writes, “Nostalgia is the suffering caused by an unappeased yearning to return. Often they mean only the sadness caused by the impossibility of returning to one’s country: a longing for country, for home . . . In that etymological light, nostalgia seems something like the pain of ignorance, of not knowing. You are far away, and I don’t know what has become of you. My country is far away, and I don’t know what is happening there.” In Two Big Differences, Zina and Valinka are strangers to their lives—regardless of whether they are in their homeland or in a foreign place. They possess an unappeased yearning to be elsewhere than where they are, and possibly someone else too—but find surprising layers of their own identities as they search to belong in Odessa. In his poetic novel, Singleton asks us to embody the thoughts and feelings of these existential protagonists, and to consider how our own language forges our identities, desires, and longings.