It’s January 2015 in the Donbas region. Pasha – the main protagonist – is a 35-year-old state-paid secondary school teacher who lives in a small village near a railway station. Pasha teaches Ukrainian but never speaks it beyond the school. He shares an old house, built by German prisoners after WWII, with his elderly father and twin-sister, who works as a train conductor.
For some months, Pasha has been watching the frontline edging closer to his home. Still, he shows little concern for the conflict splitting his country until he wakes up on a typically dreary winter morning and sets off on a three-day journey. Pasha is supposed go to the city to take his teenage nephew home from an orphanage. When he arrives at the station, he is shocked to see troops in transit, retreating from the city and heading north to join their units. Clueless about military insignia, Pasha instinctively calls the soldiers ‘our guys’.
Smeared with blood and dirt, they are exhausted, disillusioned, angry, and above all confused. The city has surrendered to ‘them’, as Pasha calls this unknown force disrupting his dull but comfortable life. However, he continues his journey, crossing new checkpoints and crossing newly declared territorial lines.
Death seems to follow on Pasha’s heels; he discerns signs of it everywhere – in the bitterly cold air, in the yellowing snow, in empty streets, in badly damaged buildings, in hungry eyes of wet stray dogs, in screams of children, in bulky tanks cruising residential areas, in broken furniture, in broken toys, in night shelling, in the haunted looks of women crammed together in a cellar with no water, no electricity, no hope… All this is shrouded in a climate of fog and drizzle. Pasha has a feeling they are all forgotten and abandoned – isolated in a big orphanage. Nobody cares, yet there is no one to blame – aren’t they all responsible for what has happened?
Pasha manages to rescue his nephew from the orphanage before it is attacked by militants. They start their dangerous odyssey back home, however, they will never return to life as it was. The war constantly and inevitably urges them to face a new reality, perhaps uncomfortable, self-defeating, but honest…
Born in Luhansk Oblast, Serhiy Zhadan is an internationally-known Ukrainian writer, poet, essayist, with 14 books of poetry and eight novels to his name. His highly acclaimed novel Voroshilovgrad won a number of prestigious awards and titles including the BBC Ukraine’s Book of the Year (2010), BBC Ukraine’s Book of the Decade (2014), the Jan Michalski Prize for Literature in Switzerland (2014), and the Brücke Berlin Prize (2015). Published in September, Zhadan’s latest novel The Orphanage has no specific location; however, anyone who closely follows the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine will immediately recognise the fierce fighting near Debaltseve in 2015 and the withdrawal of Ukrainian forces.