Tuesday, May 21, 2024

Serhiy Zhadan's The Orphanage (Ukraine)

"People aren't meant to keep so much fear and anger in their memories."

Pasha teaches at a school in the east of Ukraine. It's 2017 and the war in Ukraine is already in full swing in the east by then. But Pasha prefers to pay no attention to politics, speaks both Ukrainian and Russian, doesn't have a side, doesn't watch the news. 

Pasha's nephew is living in a nearby orphanage. The nephew's mother travels for her job, the kid's father's long gone, and with that background and the current situation, the kid was kind of a handful. Against the will of Pasha and the kid's grandfather, the mother had dropped him off at this orphanage. But now it's spring break, and Pasha's father browbeats Pasha into going and picking up his grandchild, Pasha's nephew.

But Pasha also doesn't watch the news. The orphanage is out in the countryside, in theory a short tram ride away. But overnight there'd been a shift in the front line Pasha hadn't heard about. He feels it, though, the moment he gets outside.

There are no trains and there are new checkpoints. Who's manning them? There are Russian-speakers with some Ukrainian; there's Ukrainian-speakers with some Russian; and then there are actual Russians, though in 2017 they're still pretending they aren't Russian, but Pasha hears Russian accents that aren't local.

The novel is structured as a three-day there and back journey. Through Hell? It occurred to me, even if the only soul who gets harrowed is one cantankerous but basically OK nephew. It is quite the hellscape he travels through.

But it's also a journey of discovery for Pasha. There's no my guys, your guys for Pasha at the beginning. (And wouldn't that be nice?) He's had a defective hand from childhood and couldn't be a soldier anyway. (Though somebody tells him at one point they've seen soldiers with worse.) But Pasha's a teacher of Ukrainian, and in the east that's already a political statement. And what he sees gradually changes him. When he gets to the orphanage at the end of the first day, there's only two adults left, the director and the gym teacher. Pasha and the gym teacher bond over their apoliticalness, but then Nina, the director, tells them both off.

Pasha sees worse in the two days it takes him to get back from the orphanage to his flat and his father, but he does make it with his thirteen-year-old nephew in tow. Pasha, who'd been passive as well as apolitical, starts to lead. He's also starting to decide.

The novel came out in 2017 in Ukrainian and was translated (ably, I think) into English in 2021 by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. From the Ukrainian, it says, but I suspect there's quite a lot of subtlety where speakers shift between Russian and Ukrainian that the translators were obliged convey differently. 

A powerful portrait of a grim time and place, but one that ends with family and country and a glimmer (?) of hope. But things have only gotten worse in the Ukraine since then.