Odesa: City on the Black Sea, one-time home to Babel, Chekhov, Gogol and Pushkin. In McGrane’s novel also home to a network of stray cats, top cat being Mr Smiley, whose success depends upon
“a highly-developed gift for intuition … Brutality, the ability to walk away, a gift for the double cross, a keen understanding of the enemy, a keener understanding of your friends.”
Mr Smiley’s human counterpart would be the King, an old man, former mobster, once exiled to Georgia, now returned to Odesa, in search of oh so many things; revenge, his lost family, another dodgy business. Don’t let the old man’s shuffle, fool you, He’s still got what it takes. All the qualities to which Mr Smiley attributes his own success, though I’d say the King’s intuition is somewhat inferior to the cat’s.
Then there’s Max Rushmore, ex-CIA, who cannot resist digging for the explanation, when he finds a severed toe bearing the birthmark of the Odesan mayor, Grisha. Especially not when a hand with the same marking has recently been discovered in a vat of sunflower oil. Yet Grisha is still very much alive and in possession of his birthmarked mitt. Rushmore’s skillset? He’s competent yet inferior to Mr Smiley in every way.
My final introduction for today, the lovely Sima, a talented confectioner, creator of the most realistic eyeballs, and victim of Odesa’s 13th victimless bombing. She’s the catalyst for McGrane finally herding her protagonists (both human and feline) onto the same page. Sima is also an unknowing participant in a love triangle, which includes Mr Smiley, in which everyone gets the cream!
Sally McGrane is a former resident of Odesa, and the city she loves becomes as vivid a character as any of her protagonists. Set long before conflicts escalated into present day warfare, Odesa at Dawn provides insight into the tensions that have existed between Ukraine and Russia since the demise of the Soviet Union.
“Today, the role played formerly by the Hapsburg Empire – that is to say, a buffer between Europe and the East – is now being played, though it has gone largely unacknowledged, by Ukraine.”
I wouldn’t say the picture McGrane offers of Odesa and Ukrainian society is wholely complimentary. There are thorny issues of political corruption and deregulated product development beneath the witty surface of the narrative. Nevertheless Odesans are shown to be enterprising and resilient. Odesa itself with its rich literary heritage, the beaches and the catacombs seems fascinating. Well worth a visit, once peace returns. In the meantime I recommend everyone take Boris Dralyuk’s advice: Come for the story, but don’t forget to take in the sights.