Serhiy Zhadan: Інтернат (The Orphanage)
The title of this book has been translated into English as The Orphanage which is sort of accurate though the Ukrainian word Інтернат, the title of the original work, is something between an orphanage and a boarding school. The Ukrainian Wikipedia page on the subject defines them as residential type institutions that are subordinated to social protection bodies, which were created to protect the interests and provide social protection services to the elderly, the disabled of all age groups, the homeless and other socially vulnerable segments of the population.
The novel was published in 2017, i.e. after the illegal annexation of Crimea by Russia but before it invaded Ukraine. Zhadan was born in Luhansk and lived in Kharkiv, both not far from the border with Russia and is therefore familiar with the border tensions, which are also mentioned in other books he has written.
Our hero in this book is Pasha. He lives in an unspecified town near the front line with his ageing and cantankerous father and twin sister. They live in a duplex. One half of the duplex burnt down. They manage to save their half so now live in half a duplex. Pasha works as a teacher of Ukrainian so at least he has a job, though poorly paid. However, early in the book, the school is taken over by the army as a field hospital. Pasha is indifferent, his boss hysterical.
Pasha has or, rather, had a girlfriend, Maryna. They had their ups and downs but, when he proposed to her, she took offence and they broke up. Despite this, not only does she still live with him, she even shares a bed with him. His sister works as a train stewardess so is rarely there. She has a thirteen-year old son, Sasha, who has been difficult. Sasha’s father has long since gone. Sasha is currently in the eponymous orphanage.
At the start of the novel, things are clearly getting worse as the Russians and their separatist allies are constantly shelling and invading. (Though we know which armies are involved, Zhadan never mentions them by name, so, at times, when we meet soldiers in the book, it is not always clear to us or, indeed, some of the characters, which side they are on. Often he comments on their language and accent which gives us a clue but almost certainly gives Ukrainian readers more of a clue).
Because of the situation, Pasha’s father wants Pasha to go and extract his grandson, Pasha’s nephew, from the orphanage but Pasha, who is not particularly fond of his nephew, declines. However, when he sees his decrepit father preparing for the journey, he relents and sets off the next day.
Much of the book is about his three-day journey to fetch Sasha home. Under normal circumstances this would have been a straightforward journey by public transport but circumstances are far from normal as Pasha discovers. He starts off on a bus and is surprised to find that he is the only passenger on the bus and that there seems to be little traffic about . He soon finds out why. There is a manned roadblock and it is made abundantly clear that there is no way through as there has been heavy shelling, which seems to be continuing. He has passed through many times recently but now it is blocked. It was obvious that the city would fall, the government troops would be forced to retreat and take the flags of Pasha’s country with them, and the front line would shift to the north, toward the station, and death would come a few miles closer. But did anyone actually care?
Pasha now sets off on a epic and superbly described journey through the hell that is his city. He travels on foot, by taxi and by bus. He meets numerous people, including those fleeing the shelling and helps some. He meets soldiers of both sides and their armaments, from small guns to large tanks. He sees dead bodies, human and animal. He sees many buildings destroyed, roads and bridges damaged and destroyed and possibly mined. He is nearly killed more than once. Sometimes he stands up to the soldiers, other times he flees. He helps others, though it is made clear on several occasions that it is every man and woman for themselves. He nearly has sex on two occasions. Death’s somewhere nearby, just biding its time.
He does get to the orphanage which is not in good shape but, as Nina, the director, comments, We’re lucky the basement was designed as a bomb shelter. Especially for us. Well, and for World War III.
He finds Sasha and manages to extract, him probably just in time, but getting him home may well be more difficult than getting there.
What makes you think that all of this is going to end?” she [Anna] asks.
“Well, it has to end at some point.”
“You think so?”
Pasha doesn’t answer.
Sadly, we know better than both Pasha and Anna that it is going to get worse.
The whole journey is made worse as it is in the depths of winter and there is snow and cold to cope with. He curses and realises that the wintry tinge of mortality, the icy breath of fear and nothingness will accompany him until the day of his death, the death that’s missed its target this time around, yet probably hasn’t waived its rights .
Zhadan has written road books before and this certainly can be said to be one as we follow Pasha on his epic if relatively short (in mileage terms) journey. The obvious comparison is with Cormac McCarthy‘s The Road, not least because Pasha, like the Father in McCarthy’s book, is travelling with a child. But there are other comparisons to be made. It is clearly also a Dantesque journey through hell as Zhadan gives us a very bleak view of the ruins and devastation he passes through and the occasional Dantesque characters, both soldiers and locals. Though there is no Virgil to guide him, various characters do guide him some of the way. It is also a Ulysses-style city novel as Pasha travels through the city he knows and meets the locals but instead of enjoying the city, its culture and people and what it has to offer as Bloom does in Ulysses or, indeed, to mention another Ukrainian novel, as Yarosh does in Lviv in Yuriy Vynnychuk‘s Танґо смерті (Tango of Death), he is merely trying to survive and get back to his half duplex. The city he sees is not like Dublin and Lviv in the other two books, though he does meet various characters (from both sides) and they add to the variety.
Zhadan superbly shows Pasha’s epic journey and the various problems he encounters, the people he meets, the devastation he sees, the two armed forces and how they behave, the continuous shelling and how ordinary people, both Pasha and those he meets, struggle and carry on under these very stressful conditions. Some survive and some do not. Sadly, we know that this is still going on.
First published in 2017 by Meridian
First published in English in 2021 by Yale University Press
Translated by Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and Reilly Costigan-Humes