The Orphanage is a 2017 novel by Serhiy Zhadan, recently published in English translation. It explores the experiences of civilians in wartime, specifically in the Donbass region of Ukraine. Pasha, a rather impotent teacher, journeys across enemy lines to retrieve his nephew from an orphanage/boarding school in an unnamed city that has already fallen. The city teems with military checkpoints, artillery fire, grifters, and civilians doing their best to survive and hold on to something in this environment.
Throughout his journey, Pasha meets other civilians, soldiers, and even a journalist. These encounters enable rich exploration of a variety of themes: language, identity, authority, education, nostalgia, and the indifference of war towards the neutrality of civilians. During these encounters, Pasha generally does his best to help others around him, even though this distracts him from his goals.
Who needs cold medicine in a city getting pounded by heavy artillery, a city that’s going to fall any day now? (18)
Moments of solitude provide little relief. It's January, the coldest part of winter. Even when the bombardments stop, the snow and frigid temperatures won't. These put considerable strain on our protagonists' bodies and clothes, and even psyches as Pasha vividly remembers childhood memories of a winter day gone very wrong. And, he has health problems too.
Although the subject matter is much weightier and darker than that of Zhadan's other novels available in English translation, The Orphanage otherwise shares a lot of commonalities with them: a sharp wit and healthy level of satire, an atmosphere of rotting infrastructure and institutions, and loneliness and a longing for love. Zhadan's sense of humor is keen. Combined with the tense situation of the storyline, it helps keep things from ever being too downbeat.
Kids don’t hide anything at all. Compulsory education is designed to break them of that habit. (144)
Zhadan also has a strong voice as a narrator -- I would almost call it moralistic, but I think more than anything it it just asking the reader to notice and feel things -- but not in an overpowering way. It's hard to describe, though I think it comes out the most in scenes where Pasha is forced to confront his neutrality in the conflict.
Pasha is basically raked through the coals for not believing that his personal neutrality would somehow alter the situation around him. Soldiers and others look down at him for not serving, even as he makes his excuses. Most of the civilians he encounters are elderly, female, or children. He's a young man, why isn't he fighting?
“Nobody’s fighting against me,” Pasha objects coldly, beginning to enjoy this conversation less and less. “I’m not on anyone’s side.” (129)
The most critical scene for this comes mid-way through the book during an argument between Valera, the orphanage gym teacher (who longs for good old Soviet days), and Nina, the orphanage director. This essentially functions as a stand-in for arguing more directly with Pasha himself,
"You’re so used to hiding. So used to staying out of things, letting someone else decide everything for you, letting someone else take care of things for you. Nobody’s going to decide for you, nobody’s going to take care of things. Not this time. Because you saw what was going on, you knew. But you kept silent, you didn’t say anything." (129)
Despite his impotent nature, Pasha does in fact take a great deal of agency during his journey without necessarily being aware of it. Whether he wants to be changed or not, he is transformed by his experiences, and his actions have a positive impact on the people around him. Moreover, he is still just another wandering soul trying to make his way through a world whose order has been torn to shreds, and who can begrudge that?
It is only at the end of the novel that we experience a shift from Pasha's perspective to his another character's, and with it, we experience a significant softening in attitude towards Pasha.
The Orphanage succeeds at being tense, gripping, and humorous. There's just enough dark humor, along with the familial love between Pasha and his nephew to mostly keep the novel teetering on the "not too depressing" end of the spectrum. And it's ridiculously thematically rich too.
The whole work is unlimitable, and loveable, blending the best aspects of Zhadan's previously translated novels with serious subject matter, and hitting it out of the park. It's shaggy, but not too shaggy; sad, but not too sad.
It's a real tour de force, and I highly recommend it.
Serhiy Zhadan is a contemporary author from Eastern Ukraine, and a leader in the country's current literary scene. He is the author of numerous novels and works of poetry, and is very likely has more works available in English translation than any other contemporary Ukrainian author -- four novels and two books of poetry, several of them released quite recently.
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