— The Orphanage, by Serhiy Zhadan, Yale University Press (2021). Translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler.
As Vladimir Putin continues to throw Russia and its people into an increasingly horrific war against Ukraine, the time is ripe for us in the Anglophone world to read more Ukrainian writers. Part of Putin’s (ironic) justification for the brutality in Ukraine is the idea that Russians and Ukrainians are one people, and that Ukraine’s heritage is not distinct from Russia’s. Highlighting Ukraine’s rich literature is a clear way to counter this false narrative, and Serhiy Zhadan is one of the best writers in translation with whom to start.
Zhadan is already well-known in his native country as a chronicler of life in post-independence Ukraine, and more recently — since the war in eastern Ukraine began in 2014 — of how violence and conflict is affecting ordinary citizens. His most recent novel, The Orphanage, is no exception. This is the story of Pasha, an unexceptional man faced with exceptional circumstances in the outskirts of an unnamed eastern city (likely modeled on Kharkiv, Zhadan’s hometown). As this city becomes a frontline in the war and the situation worsens, Pasha sets out to pick up his nephew, Sasha, from the orphanage “for his week off.”
Pasha’s three-day journey there and back seems ridiculous, impossible even, as he navigates the devastation and carnage wrought by the shifting borders. He is a self-proclaimed “wimp,” a bumbling hero sometimes to the point of absurdity. He is a man who always “pays the full fare, goddammit, he always pays what they tell him to pay,” even when he knows he’s getting ripped off. When a soldier demands his papers at a railway station that has become an impromptu shelter for women and children hiding from the shelling, Pasha thinks, “Gotta ask who he is… don’t even think about handing him your papers.’ And then he reaches for his papers right away.”
Pasha’s ordinariness is what gives this novel its power. It forces us to ask, if war can happen to a man like Pasha, could it not happen to any one of us? What would I do in his situation? But it is also chilling to realize how minuscule any one person is against the backdrop of war. As Pasha enters the train-station-cum-shelter, he thinks, “they can all see how scared I am, how freaked out I am. They’re looking at me like I’m some sort of clown.” But he soon realizes, “with a certain degree of disappointment, that nobody, nobody at all, is paying any attention to him.” It is for this reason that Pasha’s ineptitude — and his unlikely survival in spite of it — is endearing, and a necessary antidote to a story that might otherwise be too bleak to finish.
Ultimately, the novel leaves us with the question of how ordinary people can recover from such brutal experiences. As Pasha approaches home with his nephew still safely beside him, he tries to convince himself that the boy will be able to forget and go on with his life as before: “There’s no need for him to remember all this, he has no need for the smell of sulfur and raw human flesh, he shouldn’t remember the dirt under fingernails. People aren’t meant to keep so much fear and anger in their memories. But how do you live with this?” Perhaps the answer is, simply, by taking sides, and by doing something, anything at all.
This is what Pasha learns by the end of this beautiful, funny, desperate novel, and what the Anglophone world hopefully learns too as we bear witness to Ukrainians’ incredible bravery and resilience.
Originally from New York, Danielle Johnson is a writer and political scientist who has lived all over the world. She has a PhD in Politics from Oxford University and is writing her first novel. She lives in Shepherdstown with her husband, kids, and dog.By Danielle Johnson