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The Ukrainian writer training a brutally clear lens on the horror of war

As Russian forces pound his country’s cities, towns and villages, Serhiy Zhadan’s The Orphanage offers a poignant portrayal of what such an onslaught feels like, and a reminder that Ukraine has been living with conflict for years

Portrait of Serhiy Zhadan, Ukraine's most famous contemporary novelist and poet, in the National Art Museum of Ukraine, Kyiv (Photo: NurPhoto/Getty)

“You can’t see any apparent danger, everything’s quiet, and the sky up above is glimmering like a sheet of metal, but the mere realisation that you’re in the cross-hairs and that someone can fucking waste you at any moment, regardless of what colour the sky is and what’s moving around up there, makes the whole situation unsettling. So you just want to keep sitting there with your eyes closed and count to a hundred, until all the monsters around you recede.”

When Serhiy Zhadan wrote this passage in his 2017 novel The Orphanage, he was describing the life of his fictional character, Pasha, in Ukraine’s eastern Donbas region, where Russian-backed separatists have been fighting Ukrainian troops since 2014. But the words stand as a chilling evocation of the aerial horror that has now engulfed large parts of the renowned writer’s country.

And while those of us seeking to understand what it is like to live through this kind of indiscriminate destruction can turn to Zhadan’s work for what Albert Camus called the fictional lie through which we tell the truth, the writer himself is busy with matters more mundane: helping to deliver relief supplies and other necessities in and around the besieged town of Kharkiv, where he now lives.

Zhadan, described as Ukrainian literature’s “enfant terrible” and often compared to Kurt Vonnegut and William Burroughs, is also a poet and, in brighter times, fronts a ska-punk band, Zhadan and the Dogs. Today, he drives around Kharkiv, Ukraine’s second largest city and a literary hotspot, delivering aid and posting regular updates on his Facebook page about his relief work.

The 47-year-old writer was born in the Luhansk oblast, which alongside Donetsk is one of two breakaway regions in Donbas. Russian separatists proclaimed the regions independent in 2014 and just before the Russian invasion in February, President Vladimir Putin said he recognised their independence.

More than 13,000 people have been killed in fighting and shelling in Donbas since 2014 and it is this reality that Zhadan captures so brutally, and so lyrically, in The Orphanage. His words now resonate with the dull thud of reality across a country where people live dark, half-lives in basements as they wait for death to stop falling from the sky.

The Orphanage, translated into English by Reilly Costigan-Humes and Isaac Stackhouse Wheeler and published by Yale University Press in 2021, tells the story of language teacher Pasha, who leaves his home to head into a nearby occupied city to rescue his nephew Sasha, who is living in a children’s home. The story takes place over three days, as Pasha picks his way cautiously through a broken landscape where no one is who they seem, where death is random, where flags are fungible and the language you speak can be a death sentence.

Zhadan perfectly captures the sometimes deceptive nature of violent upheaval – on the first day of his journey, Pasha emerges from his home to find that something has changed while he slept. It is too quiet and it takes him some time to realise that it is the balance of military power that has shifted overnight, with Russian-backed forces moving into the ascendancy.

Pasha’s surprise and confusion bring to mind the faces of those crossing Ukraine’s borders into neighbouring countries over the past two weeks. Many cannot believe how their lives have been upended. One young woman spoke of her nice apartment and her good job before breaking down and sobbing: “And now I am a refugee.”

Zhadan is staying put in Kharkiv, which is roughly 20 miles from the Russian border. The iconic city of around 1.4 million people was bombed heavily in the early days of the invasion but Ukrainian forces held on. With its writers, art galleries and universities, Kharkiv holds such an important place in Ukraine’s collective imagination that when Volodymyr Zelensky described the bombing of its famous Freedom Square in his landmark speech to the European Parliament, the interpreter struggled to contain his emotion as he translated the president’s words.

On March 2, Zhadan posted on Facebook that Kharkiv’s artists were not leaving. “We have nowhere to go. This is our city.”

I will freely admit that I knew nothing about Ukrainian literature before the Russian invasion and this despite being a novelist myself. In my defence, I would say that the multifarious worlds of international literature are so vast that it would be impossible to know all the beauty out there; one might say that reading is the most exciting form of modern-day exploration, now that all our physical worlds are Google-able, visible from space, or on Street View.

And although the circumstances of my literary education are tragic, I am sure I will not be the only one to discover Zhadan’s work and the rich literature of Ukraine in the depths of this crisis.

On February 24, the day Russia invaded Ukraine, TAULT, a nonprofit literary agency and translation house devoted to the visibility and availability of contemporary Ukrainian literature in the English-speaking world, issued a call-out for translators.

“Over recent months, as Russia’s animosity and aggression toward Ukraine have grown, TAULT has actively been recruiting new translators to work with our team to assist us with an increased demand for Ukrainian literature. In light of today’s events, which have put not just the continued work of Ukrainian authors but their very lives at risk, we are renewing this call publicly … As the authors we work with take up their swords, we remain committed to translating what their pens have written and sharing it with the world,” the agency said on its website.

The world is surely in for a treat if The Orphanage is anything to go by.

On his quest, Pasha – who considers himself non-partisan – must push through fields of snow, clamber up rain-soaked hills, navigate piles of rubble and decide who among the armed men and wary civilians he can trust, all while he seeks to overcome an almost physical fear of imminent death. At times, he feels as though a spring is tightening around his heart. One can only imagine that that is what it feels like for those left in many of Ukraine’s cities today as they listen for the whine of sirens, the thud of shells or the sound of tanks rolling into their sandbagged streets.

Zhadan’s writing has a lyrical quality and his imagery is startlingly original – soldiers drop onto the ground like “ripe apples onto wet grass” while skies close like elevator doors. His fog-filled city where black spirals of smoke reach to the sky has a dystopian quality that reminds one of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Pasha must constantly stamp down his panic just to survive, must constantly conquer the feeling that nobody cares, that nothing can be done, that helplessness will be the end of them all. He is torn between the idea that none of this has anything to do with him and a nagging sense that he needs to choose a side.

Zhadan is as famous an activist as he is as an artist. He was involved in the Maidan protests that toppled then-president Viktor Yanukovych in 2014, taking part in support rallies in Kharkiv until he was savagely beaten by pro-Russian thugs and had to leave the country for treatment in Poland. He has his own charity now and before the Russian invasion did a lot of work in Donbas, delivering relief to the needy and working in education.

In an interview with The Calvert Journal in 2019, he said: “For me, everything changed. You can’t even compare our reality today with that of 2013. War is, of course, the most important, most significant and most terrible thing that has happened. It defines the rhythm of life, the mood, how you structure your day — and everything else.”

No one, probably not even Putin, knows how the war in Ukraine will end. But in a Facebook post on March 6 – translated into English by Eurozine magazine – Zhadan imagined one clear outcome for the Russian people.

“In the second week of the Third World War, it is hard to predict anything. But no matter how long our beautiful and irresponsible world exists, no matter what the shape European civilization takes (yes – that humanitarian tradition inherited from Athens and Alexandria, which for eight years tried to ignore the annexation of Crimea and the Russian tanks in the Donbas), it is clear that Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky have suffered a crushing defeat. So have: Russian ballet, Russian avant-garde (which to a large extent is not Russian, but Ukrainian), Russian hockey and Russian soccer (which was in bad shape even before the war). A people who cannot restrain themselves from bombing cities in other countries do not have the right to blame some would-be Adolf Hitler. This is your burden now.”

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