Internat [The Orphanage] by Serhiy Zhadan | Book Review

Internat also published in English under the title ‘The Orphanage’ by the Ukrainian writer Serhiy Viktorovych Zhadan (Serhij Zadan) is my favourite book I have read so far this year and definitely one of the best books I have ever read. Yale University Press published an English translation of this magnificent novel in April 2021 under the title ‘The Orphanage’ .

Internat [The Orphanage] is a novel about ‘the apocalypse’, occupation, helplessness and living in a constant fear when the reality surrounding us changes unexpectedly..

It is worth noting that the names of Donbas, Donetsk, Russia, or Ukraine are not mentioned in the book even once. However, we can assume that Internat is a portrayal of life in the war – torn Donetsk circa 2015. As per the 2020 OHCHR Report, during the war in eastern Ukraine 13 000 people were killed, 30 000 people were wounded, over ‪1 000 000‬ Ukrainians were internally displaced and around ‪900 000‬ people were forced to flee abroad.

Zhadan’s book is set in some dark, grim, covered in dirty snow and mud war-torn unnamed city [Donetsk, Eastern Ukraine] from which the main protagonist, Pasha, a 35-year-old teacher of the Ukrainian language, sets off from the outskirts to the centre of the city to pick up his nephew from the Internat [Boarding School / Orphanage] and bring him back to their family home. As we follow Pasha through his three-day long journey, we understand that there are some of us and some of them, fighting in every street. There is chaos, fear, hunger, confusion.

Extreme cold and snow covers the entire city and makes navigating its streets even more difficult. Pasha realises that it is better not to get used to people one might encounter by chance as everyone is in danger of dying any moment. In these circumstances human nature manifests itself in a more evident manner, human emotions are more tangible, not only are they felt but also seen. There is compassion, empathy, solidarity on one hand but on the other, selfishness, indifference to the human suffering is also prevalent. The only guiding force here is a constant omnipresent fear.

It is impossible to know who is who and on which side of this conflict, who is a friend and who is an enemy, how to talk to whom, what might result from an accidental encounter, how to behave, what attitude to adopt, what accent to speak with?
Demarcation lines constantly change and for Pasha and his nephew returning home safely proves to be an impossibly difficult task.

The atmosphere in this book is intense, stuffy, unbearable, tiring, anxious, fearful; the reader wants Pasha to free himself of this situation as soon as possible.

Pasha is a passive figure in both his personal and professional life. When the war breaks out, Pasha thinks that it has nothing to do with him as he is ‘apolitical’, he does not support either side in the conflict, he has no interest in politics, he does not want to watch the news, he does not want to know what is going on beyond the four walls he occupies. He just wants to do his job as a teacher; he does not want to get involved in anything that might appear remotely political.

Pasha’s ability to navigate through the conversation with random people and soldiers he encounters and mental acrobatics he performs in order not to out himself as a supporter or an enemy of either side allows him to distance himself from the situation and rationalise it, at least initially. His world view comes with the price of the profound emotional pain as the world around him is unrecognisably changing: the villages have been deserted, buses are now running empty, the landscape is desolate. All Pasha sees now is sheer emptiness and greyness. This new reality shocks him. As we follow Pasha his ‘indifferent’ or rather ‘impartial’ attitude to the surrounding reality is often put to the test. The readers feel every single emotion that Pasha does when meeting random people, visiting places. People encountered by our protagonist along his journey appear just for a few moments, there might be some verbal exchange or deafening silence, then they disappear again.

Pasha’s attitude is a metaphor for the attitudes of some within the Ukrainian society as well as the international community in the West.

Throughout the book, we do not really see hostilities and killings – we know they are happening, but we do not witness them. This only adds to the horror of the reality, the unease and anxiety of the war zone that Pasha and his nephew experience. We can hear the sounds of explosions, gunshots, or chilling silence all the time which only strengthens a sense of fear, claustrophobia, humiliation, alienation, paranoia, and total hopelessness.

What distinguishes this book is the fact that it is written in a very realistic way in which Zhadan managed to capture the topography of the city – reader can accurately imagine the streets, block of flats, ruins, abandoned buildings, highways. We could draw the route that Pasha follows on the map of Donetsk.

The language in the book is poetic but at the same time it is accompanied by this strange roughness; it does speak to our raw emotions. The author’s linguistic sensitivity is evident on every page. As a reader you feel besieged in the same way that Pasha does especially when Zhadan describes the anxious atmosphere of the railway station, decomposing corpses of dogs, people going around aimlessly in an unknown direction.

Internat [The Orphanage] focuses on the most humane dimension of the war: the senseless suffering of the accidental victims. Zhadan does not advocate for either side. It is not about who is right and who is wrong: war has no victors. Although it may seem that the novel – like its main protagonist –avoids choosing sides in the conflict, yet ‘impartial’, ‘indifferent’ attitude, non -involvement is not praised either. This makes Internat a truly universal story. Zhadan leaves up to his readers to draw their own conclusions and opinions about the protagonist’s attitude.

This is a book about the human behaviour during the times of the ‘apocalypse’. It is about the indifference of those whom the war does not concern. Also, it shows how the war affects not only the outside world, but also the internal world of human relationships between members of one family, neighbours, strangers living in the same city. Pasha’s story has unfolded over the course of three days – Zhadan shows us that this is all what is needed to change the entire country and its people: to take away their rights, to force them to take the sides, to ‘cancel’ the reality they have lived in for decades – three days is just a blip in one’s life but it is all it takes to cause societal collapse. There is something both banal and extraordinary about it.

I would highly encourage you to get a copy of this book in English.

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