Since 2014, when Russia annexed Crimea and began to arm insurgents in eastern Ukraine, large swathes of Ukrainian literature have reflected on the experience of war. Today, this fact becomes ever more poignant. “Our literature has changed. At least I write a very different kind of literature now compared to pre-2014,” novelist and poet Serhiy Zhadan recently said in an interview with Romania’s SpotMedia.
Born in Luhansk in 1974, Zhadan is one of Ukraine’s most celebrated contemporary writers. Yet, if his early novels had a rebellious, beatnik vibe about them, The Orphanage, originally published in Ukrainian language in 2017, takes his favourite genre, the road movie, past new horizons.
The novel’s protagonist, Pasha, is an apolitical literature teacher in his mid-thirties, living near the frontline in Donbas. Sharing a home with his elderly father and ex-girlfriend, Pasha’s journey of transformation begins when he goes to collect his teenage nephew from a nearby orphanage. The boy has been sent to the boarding school-style institution by his mother, who hopes it will keep him safe and fed while she is forced to work. But no place is spared by violence.
Pasha’s trip is far from easy. On his way to the orphanage, he passes by soldiers and a two-storey motel called Paradise, with its windows on the second floor smashed from an explosion. This is “more like the first circle of hell,” a character notes. Many people have deserted the town. Those who are still left around hide in humid and substandard basements, with barely any electricity, food, or clean water.
War suspends ordinary life in The Orphanage. One of Pasha’s lessons is interrupted as soldiers bring their wounded comrades into the classroom — his pupils run away from their desks, terrified by the bloody sight. When Pasha’s father feels ill, we are told all the doctors have fled, and he can only see a vet, somewhere far away. When Pasha finally finds his nephew, Sasha, starving and defiant, he is pointing at a dead sniper abandoned in a basement room of the boarding school. The soldier’s phone keeps ringing every morning — probably just before his kids, unaware of his death, start their classes, the boy explains.
Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler for Yale University Press, this novel makes a parallel between Ukraine and Pasha’s dysfunctional family who, in the end, have to stay united and help each other. Masterfully written, The Orphanage is a powerful testimony to the horrors of war in the everyday life of adults and children alike.