|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Piotr Florczyk on On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk
A Europe Full of Animals
September 28th, 2011
IF YOU WISH TO SEE the Romanian town of Babadag, get in your hot air balloon, with a nice cup of coffee. Glide past the convenience store on the corner of Venice and Sepulveda, which isn’t too far from where I am writing this now, and over the toothy mountains and frothy seas you know from postcards. Eventually, you’ll find yourself in Europe. Avoid the flashy capitals. Europe can be overwhelming, so think of it as East and West — there is nothing wrong with following in the footsteps of finicky, divisive political history. Heading east through Germany, pay attention to how the neatly ordered villas give way to Soviet-style apartment towers. Once you cross into Poland, you’ll see how the race toward modernization and beautification (the Poles tucking in their shirts for a seat at the big boys’ table of Europe) has gone into overdrive; don’t ask questions when locals remind you that you’re in Central — not Eastern — Europe, which, as far as they’re concerned, is some other place altogether. You’ll hear about Sobieski, Chopin, Mickiewicz, Milosz, Wojtyla, and Walesa, or about how Marie Curie's maiden name was Sklodowska, and that she was born and raised in Warsaw, not far from where you’re standing, facing the skyscrapers and the national stadium going up in the shadow of the spruced-up Palace of Culture and Science, that was gifted to the Polish people by Stalin and company.
But if you wish to see Andrzej Stasiuk’s Poland, where Warsaw’s traffic and designer boutiques end, where you are not following the ancient amber trade route so much as the needle of a compass held by one of Poland’s most engaging writers (whose popularity in the English-speaking world is on the rise), you must, necessarily you must, point your balloon south. You’ll need to see Kraków, the country’s cultural heart. From there, it’s a mere stone’s throw to the small village in the Beskids where Stasiuk lives and writes, having abandoned many modern luxuries in favor of a house in the foothills, herds of sheep, and an occasional horse-drawn carriage. “My Europe is full of animals,” he announces, not unironically, in his book On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe. In this collection of 14 travel essays, Stasiuk travels more or less along the 24th longitude, through Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, and Moldova.
Driving or hitchhiking, Stasiuk stays off the beaten path, and in most places sees “decline everywhere and [cannot] imagine renaissance.” With a keen eye for detail and a ruminating mind, Stasiuk travels to learn things anew: to see and comprehend, but with the understanding that our existence is made of nothing but fleeting moments. His appetite is insatiable; there’s never enough to put him at ease. When he uses Slovenia, the most successful of the former Eastern Bloc, as an example of a place that has shed its skin and won’t allow itself to be caught looking backwards, he clearly hopes to keep himself, and us, honest. He doesn’t believe that we should hide under nice clothes where we come from, for our pastoral origins are impossible to erase. The fact that we embrace progress at great psychological, physical, and environmental costs is ultimately making us spiritually poorer, and crazy at that. It’s a futile endeavor, to try to become something we are not, and his evocative essays serve as both mementos and tokens of appreciation.
One of the greatest strengths of these essays is Stasiuk’s descriptions of the people he encounters during his sojourns. These range from mean, corrupt border guards, to the helpful drivers of rickety Ladas, Dacias, and Mercedes who take him where he wants to go but can’t fathom why he’s going there. Though these men possess a level of independence and worldliness not enjoyed by some of their neighbors, they aren’t all that different from the peasants they pass at double the speed limit. In fact, Stasiuk seems to suggest that our metamorphosis from dirty peasants to bedraggled cab drivers to office workers and account executives is only a façade, or a smokescreen. In reality, not much changes in terms of how we love and hate, dream and feel pain — glossy magazines full of advice on how to improve ourselves will never eradicate the primordial within us. Yet Stasiuk doesn’t so much give voice to the voiceless, to borrow a famous phrase, as engrave our hearts and minds with images of the so-called vanishing Europe, a place ruled by “a perpetual decline,” where “children are born exhausted” and “[m]en stand on street corners staring at the emptiness of the day. They spit on the sidewalk and smoke cigarettes. That’s the present.” If this goes against what the E.U., with its generous subsidies and ethos of solidarity, stands for, so be it. We have no way of knowing how the locals might feel about a cleaner, safer dwelling, good schooling, and access to top-rate medical care, because for Stasiuk, “[e]verything new is a movie that has no connection with the past.” Stasiuk opts for what’s old and marked by “decay, whose continuity cannot be undermined.”
But Stasiuk doesn’t so much glorify the past, feasting on the backwardness and insecurity of bygone eras, as he honors a way of life that puts humanity in tune with a particular time and place. When he sees four men gathering wood not far from his house, he tells us that, “[t]hey work like animals — slowly, monotonously, performing the same movements and gestures performed one hundred, two hundred years ago … Their smell, effort, groans, existence, follow a form that has endured since unrecorded time.” As a travel writer and essayist, Stasiuk is primarily concerned with the encroachment of progress and the so-called civilized world on those who seem (perhaps only seem) to be stuck on the wrong side of the tracks. He isn’t against improving standards of living, per se; rather, he bemoans the fact that modernization has shattered our physical and metaphysical realms, and made existential orphans of us.
Of course, Western Europe has tried very hard to do something about its other half, although many in the West continue to believe that Europe ends in Berlin. Still, the expansion of the European Union to the east and south has proved mostly successful, even though for many on the lower rungs of the respective countries’ social strata, life remains a seemingly inexplicable tangle of old customs and concerns, which are a world removed from the E.U.’s headquarters in Brussels. Observing a group of men arguing next to an overturned wagon somewhere in Slovakia, Stasiuk writes:
Regardless of Brussels’s diplomatic efforts and good intentions, the occupants of the countries Stasiuk visits see their lives governed by the kind of fatalism that would make them look grotesque if they were uprooted and planted on a wide boulevard ending at a flashy, bursting-at-the-seams megastore. Clearly, Stasiuk believes that some things should be valued for what they are and left untouched.
Stasiuk calls this effort to develop and expand one’s horizon a form of camouflage. Moreover, anyone who’s traveled in this part of Europe knows about the mass of kitsch embedded in commercials and daytime television, not to mention billboards and other signage, which often incorporate misspelled versions of their American or German originals. So, while globalization takes its toll on the so-called minor languages of the equally minor countries, Stasiuk keeps his gaze on Albania, calling it “the unconscious” of Europe, where “the persistent weight of matter wishes to be left alone, to be rid of its shapes, to rest, and to return to the time when there were no forms.” This desire to erase definitions and divisions accounts for Stasiuk’s own longing to live in a place free of history and the burden of memory, a country “unable to remember its lands, its peoples, its capitals, so every morning it would need to start over.”
If the Industrial Revolution, along with its devastating effect on a communal way of life, is but a distant memory, one can reach for countless other examples — such as, say, the damming of Chinese rivers or the growth of suburban America. Similarly, it’s not altogether surprising that Stasiuk, a school dropout and army deserter, would find a haven away from “Western” civilization. For every young Polish or Slovak or Romanian college graduate who dreams of a high-paying job and career, there is another who studies humanities, who writes travel essays and poetry against the practical advice of parents and well-wishers. Stasiuk, born in 1960, knows a bit of both: He remembers communism and Poland’s transformation to democracy and capitalism. He’s aware that what mattered most before 1989 was allegiance to the Party, cemented by favors and connections, and that an analogous system still holds true today. So, disillusioned, he lives in the mountains, among chickens and llamas, where he breathes fresh air, and where his vagabond past keeps sending him out on the road, because, as our guide Stasiuk says, it’s “precisely on a trip, in the morning, in a strange city, before the second cup of coffee has begun to work, that you experience most palpably the oddness of your banal existence.”