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The Orphanage (Revisited)

Earlier this year, Yale University Press published the excerpt below from The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan, translated from the Ukrainian by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. We are revisiting this piece today to shed light on the continued and escalating tensions in the region.

Recalling the brutal landscape of The Road and the wartime storytelling of A Farewell to ArmsThe Orphanage is a searing novel that excavates the human collateral damage wrought by the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine. When hostile soldiers invade a neighboring city, Pasha, a thirty-five-year-old Ukrainian language teacher, sets out for the orphanage where his nephew Sasha lives, now in occupied territory. Venturing into combat zones, traversing shifting borders, and forging uneasy alliances along the way, Pasha realizes where his true loyalties lie in an increasingly desperate fight to rescue Sasha and bring him home.

Publishers Weekly calls the novel “a nightmarish, raw vision of contemporary eastern Ukraine under siege. . . . With a poet’s sense of lyricism . . . [Zhadan] unblinkingly reveals a country’s devastation and its people’s passionate determination to survive.”

A field, black with last year’s unharvested sunflowers. Gray in certain spots, almost blue even. Shreds of snow. Damp, thick soil. Deep ruts from the vehicles that have driven into this dark sunflower armhole, either to fend off an attack and then keep going, or to let a passing convoy through. Pasha takes a step forward; grass pokes sharply through the hardened crust of snow. “Stay outta there,” he reminds himself and steps back, closer to the car that’s making its presence felt behind him with its warm gasoline smell. Beyond the frigid sunflowers, transmission towers stretch out like a row of fishing-rod holders. Black metal supports the heavy horizontal lines of wire slicing through the sky and extending into the rain. Down below, far away beyond the fields, the wet fur of barren trees looms among a group of dachas. There’s something different about the trees this winter—as sensitive as animals, trembling with every blast, retaining all their heat to combat the cold, and warming little black cavities around themselves, where old grass grows a dark green. The bark is damp and vulnerable; you touch it and dark painful sap stains your hands like paint, like blood from an incision. And beyond the dachas, which stretch along a shallow industrial stream overrun with cattails, you can barely make out the wall of the maintenance depot in the gully. The gully, filled with rain and fog, bends toward the city, and the air becomes so dense that you can’t see any farther, but there’s something over there. That’s where it starts, where the city begins. And there’s one last thing. Off to the side, on the horizon, where the sky has a milky, tin sheen to it, the factory smokestacks loom—tall, cold, dead. And there isn’t a single bird around, as if there’s been a great famine and all the birds have been eaten. The front line should be somewhere in there. A real front line. Before, while the city was under siege, Pasha never had to cross it, but today it looks like he’ll be crossing that line. “Well, here we go,” Pasha thinks, trying to put himself at ease. “Well, here we go.”

Excerpt from The Orphanage by Serhiy Zhadan and translated by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler. Published by Yale University Press in 2021. Reproduced with permission.

Serhiy Zhadan, widely considered to be one of the most important young writers in Ukraine, is the author of Mesopotamia and What We Live For, What We Die For: Selected PoemsReilly Costigan-Humes translates literature from the Ukrainian and Russian. Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler is a translator and poet from New England. 

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