Monday, June 27, 2011

Andrzej Stasiuk's "On the Road to Babadag": Book Review

Roaming the rarely touristed backroads of Central and Eastern Europe over perhaps seven years and accumulating 167 stamps in his Polish passport, this chronicler begins by noting how the third day of Orthodox Easter marks the "pleasant inertia of matter".  Such combined precision and vagueness, of detail and poetry, characterizes this brief, but densely compacted, narrative. Stasiuk disdains the obvious, and he does not bother with a recital of facts and figures about most of where he visits; instead, he opts for impressions, often of weariness, dissipation, and stasis. "We are all orphaned children of some emperor or despot," he observes after talking with a Romanian elder who misses the regime of Ceausescu.

Stasiuk resigns himself to invention, if he is to entertain himself. Reality tires in these flattening territories which tip eastwards  into entropy and threaten to dissolve into a haze of mist and a cloud of (cigarette more likely now than factory) smoke. "I have to invent, because days cannot sink into a past filled only with landscape, with inert, unchanging matter that finally shakes us from our corporeality, brushes off and away all these little incidents, faces, existences that last no longer than a glimpse." This typifies his approach. "Perhaps one travels for the purpose of preserving facts, keeping alive their brief, flickering light."

He rejects as "pathetic and pretentious" any easy cause and effect as an organizing principle. "Paroxysm and tedium rule her in turn, and that is why this region is so human," he reasons after a village stop where Russian, Ukrainian, Hungarian and Romanian all seem to depend on the provenance of not their speaker but upon his chance encounters. This fatalistic air may dampen anybody wishing a brisk tale full of witty characters and funny incidents, but this is a very existential report from the fading frontiers of the continent, as they return to a post-Cold War situation of uneasy allegiances, local rivalries, and timeless waiting.

As he watches a Slovak car pull up and its family look suspiciously about at their Hungarian street, Stasiuk muses how life builds up from such moments, "bits of the present that stay in the mind," to construct the world as we know it. Mired in Albania, he endures a crazy ride in a delivery van downhill, coasting to save gas, and both the driver and his companion in the front seat turn about and writhe to Turkish techno music, while "they turned to make sure we were having fun too." Such droll reportage for its rarity stands out here.

Leaving Moldova, his driver four times endures the same roadside ritual. A policeman stops the minibus. "The cops' faces stony and dull, the driver's face resigned and resentful." Asking if it was always like this, Stasiuk gets the reply that it's the same as it ever was: "Ever since the end of the Soviet Union".

This sense of going somewhere ill-defined, and ending up not quite nowhere, permeates this account. He ends up at Babadag in Romania only because not far from there, he can go no further east. Danger lurks beyond such an horizon. Neither armies nor ideas can be escaped. Nowhere can be found to start over, at the end of such a long history. We live, he admits, in a "past that permeates our territories, just as an animal's den is filled with its smell."

The final section from which this book takes its name, about ninety pages, cannot find a place to settle itself. He starts by riffing through his passport with its 167 stamps, his shoebox full of snapshots, his bottle full of coins. Travel, he asserts, can be summed up as an attempt to penetrate the secret passage into the interior. An old photograph, a banknote, a reminiscence set him off on a recollected story, but the map at the front of this book, for all its strange placenames, leaves many more out, and the reports from these fluid borders tend to accentuate their mysterious intersections as often as they delineate their jealous guards and linguistic niceties.

I found this last chapter somewhat tedious, as the relentless mood of detached observation and philosophical prose over 250 pages sunk in. One error despite Michael Kandel's sustained translation (from the 2004 original) into confident, oracular English slipped past; Enver Hoxha's daughter Pranvera could not have reconstructed a fortress in 1882. Otherwise, enriched by a few endnotes about references obscure to non-Polish readers, this reads admirably well, and for the more intellectual of armchair travelers, it is recommended as a slow if short read.

Having seen the plains of Eastern Hungary and a bit of the Slovakian mountains and the Danube's bend myself, I can, however, attest to the effect on the disoriented traveler of the languages, the torpor, and the barriers erected not so much politically but culturally that dissuade a visitor. Unlike me, with his native Polish and his pan-Slavic knack of picking up similarities in cognate languages, Stasiuk sets out with more aplomb, if no less attitude. That is, he projects as any visitor his own isolation within such vast settings that humble the outsider used to cities, compact streets, and accessible conversations with the locals.

Rather than such familiarities, Stasiuk conjures up the haunted qualities of this realm. "Death should bear some resemblance to life. It should be like a dream or a movie. Reality in this part of the continent has assumed the aspect of the afterlife--no doubt so that people will fear death less and die with less regret." This ultimately oblique, slippery visit to the countries beyond the author's native Poland carries an erudite, seasoned, yet very melancholy atmosphere common to much of the cultural and literary productions of this region. It captures the sense of the humble but it also strains for the heights, not the depths, of sadness. (Amazon US & 6-11-11; as slightly altered here, featured 6-22-11 on PopMatters)


Tony Bailie said...

Think I will have to track this down. We will be travelling through the Baltic in September... Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. Does Stasiuk venture that far north? I have an endless fascination with Eastern Europe... a Cold War hangover I suppose for people of my generation.

Fionnchú said...

Tony, I wish he'd hit the Baltics, but he didn't. More Romanian-adjacent, with a jaunt through Albania. Like you, I find this area somehow intriguing, and didn't you get to Dubrovnik a couple of years ago.

I need to read, somehow, Rebecca West's thousand-page "Black Lamb & Gray Falcon"; I took it with me to Prague (not that near the Balkans, but...) but only got a hundred pages in. I've been twice to Prague and once to Hungary, but for a brief time both times. Doesn't look like I'll be venturing far east for a while, so keep me posted!

Tony Bailie said...

I've often wondered if a native Polish, Czech or even Serbian speaker would be able to make himself understood using his own language in his neighbouring countries. Dobry den, prosim/molim, pivo and kava seem fairly common right down through the Balkans... Hungary being the exception of course. Two years ago we travelled from Budapest down through Serbia, Bosnia and flew home from Dubrovnik.
Reading an excellent Hungarian novelist, Sándor Márai, at present... Embers... will blog about it when I've finnished. Have you come across him... think he died an exile in San Diego by his own hand in his late eigthies.

Fionnchú said...

I get the impression, Tony, that Stasiuk was able to stumble along, as folks try to talk to him in pidgin Polish now and then and I assume he was able to do the same in pidgin Slovakian or Slovenian. And I reckon he'd have had to learn Russian in school as all good Warsaw Pact children did, if by force.

Hungarian fiction, as with its intricate poetry (Endry Ady for instance), I have found often lacking in translation. The agglutinative nature of Magyar makes it hard to capture for the rest of us. "Embers" is often praised, but I have yet to tackle it; I think a couple of follow-ups to it have appeared since? That nation's culture (I visited Debrecen in 2003 to deliver a paper to an international Irish lit conference) interests me.

I've even published a critical article on two plays about refugees from Hungary by Irish-based women, as well as a review of Mark Collins' novel "Stateless" based on the true story of resettlement of a few hundred 1956 asylum seekers near Limerick.

I also visited on that trip (and at another Irish lit conference in 2005) Prague. Czech tends to have better renderers of its often accomplished (I like Ivan Klima far more than Milan Kundera, and many writers too little known abroad have produced amazing work) fiction from Brit expats who've settled there; the translation of Stasiuk reads fluently too.

That reminds me of British writer Tibor Fischer (1956 refugee family) and his send-up "Under the Frog" which conveys the strangeness of Hungary efficiently; the poet-translator George Szirtes from the same background as a bilingual talent appears to handle the difficult balance well.

See this poetic translation site. And this is a traveller's companion to the lit of Central & Eastern Europe book you may want to track down, as it was published in Brighton in '95.