Book Review: Andrzej Stasiuk's On the Road to Babadag
Wandering the byways of the memorably dishevelled regions just beyond the famed cities of Kiev and Belgrade: a love story
Journeys in a Forgotten Europe
Tiszaszalka. Răşinari. Székelyföld. The places of Andrzej Stasiuk’s newly translated travel memoir On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe are not likely to be familiar to most of his English-language readers, even those well-travelled in the region. The work, like Stasiuk himself, studiously avoids the great cities of Europe’s forgotten corner – Warsaw, Kiev, Belgrade, or Tirana. Rather, it wanders the byways of a provincial, peripheral region deceptively close to the hubs of Central Europe.
"Five hundred kilometres to Vienna," Stasiuk reflects, waiting in a rural Romanian train station. "But the air cracks somewhere en route, parts like tectonic plates separating continents."
On the Road to Babadag is an ode to "non-obvious lands." Winner of the NIKE Prize, Poland’s highest literary honour, its stakes are high; Stasiuk sees his region as destabilising the perennial dream of a culturally and economically unified Europe. Of Albania, for instance, he writes, "Yes, everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name ‘Europe’. … Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer."
Stasiuk finds in provincial Eastern Europe and the Balkans a kind of eternal decay outside global commerce. Against the abstractions of wealth – "rows of digits coursing through the icy bloodstream of fibre-optic cables" – he juxtaposes the tangible and idiosyncratic poverty of his region. He sees disintegration everywhere, and one gets the sense when reading his book that Stasiuk is writing against time, striving to record what is already disappearing or gone – moments in photographs, the designs of defunct banknotes, popular nostalgia for a dictator, a village in which the only visible machine is a rusty bicycle.
The result is something as fantastical and unreal as Italo Calvino’s fabulist travel fiction Invisible Cities, as lyrically meditative as Joseph Brodsky’s memoir of Venetian winter Watermark, and nearly as eccentric in its descriptive details as Bruno Schulz’s The Street of Crocodiles. Like these writers, Stasiuk is more interested in meditating on the relationship between imagination and place than in plotting sequential events. He gives his readers neither a master narrative of his region nor a confessional account, but rather an archive of "details that will soon vanish" – details incidental, momentary, the scrapwork of memory.
We learn almost nothing about Stasiuk himself besides what we can glean from his observations, routes, and imaginings. Even so, his persona is magnetic. One wants to hear his particular take on things. His travels are more ragged than most would like, and include a hotel without water, a night among bags of live fish in the bed of a truck, interrogation in Moldova, a route chosen for the sake of "the cheapest possible tobacco," and scrounged rides with strangers who "measure time in liquor."
By the middle of the book, the reader is able to nod knowingly: This is just how the adventurous Stasiuk would decide to venture into Moldova: "According to one German newspaper, the most important thing in the Moldovan economy is the trade in human organs. Generally they sell their own, but sometimes those of foreigners." Impervious, he goes on, "I’ll go in the summer." His touch is best when it is light. For instance, he passingly comments that, in an under-populated town overgrown with grass, the ambitiously named Hotel Europolis is shut.
At times, the voice can be heavy-handed ("Albania is loneliness") and its repetitive musings on time require patience. But Stasiuk’s is a consciousness with which one is interested in roving.
Yet perhaps "roving" is not the right word for what happens in On the Road to Babadag. For despite the 167 stamps in his passport – or because of them – it seems as if Stasiuk never truly leaves home. He encounters surprises, yes, and the guidebook proves perennially misleading, but just as often his adventures give him precisely what he expects – the shambolic, the memorably dishevelled.
An early chapter of the book takes us to the childhood home of the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran, author of the superbly pessimistic A Short History of Decay. A travel memoir with a nihilist as its touchstone: On the Road to Babadag happily avoids the glib self-satisfaction of those for whom travel is self-evidently an enriching and wholesome activity.
Even in the act of travel itself, Stasiuk sees "constant expense, constant loss, waste such as the world has never seen." The traveller’s mantra – "What am I doing here anyway?" – haunts the text, and turns into a question about existence itself.
What saves Stasiuk from nihilism is that, essentially, he is writing a love story, decades long, for a region not yet absorbed by the world beyond it. Reading his book, a reader easily sees why he has such affection for the place. Strangers help. Animals range by. Paprikas grow in backyard gardens, cigarettes are proffered, graves visited, glimpses had. The sum is a lyrical and significant account of "those places that no one knows and where no one ever goes, places never mentioned but that make the world what it is."
On the Road to Babadag:
Travels in the Other Europe.
by Andrzej Stasiuk. Trans. Michael Kandel
Harvill Secker, London (2011)