A Slav on the Road Not Taken
Andrzei Stasiuk is an award-wining Polish writer, poet, and journalist who over the past ten years has achieved an international reputation for his writing outside of his native Poland, particularly in Germany.
His first book, published in 1992 by Wydawnictwo Czarne, a small press run by him and his wife, was a collection of short stories called The Walls of Hebron and based on the year and half he spent in prison for refusing to serve in the army. This was followed by a collection of poetry in 1994 called Love and Non-Love Poems and then in 2000 he published White Raven, an adventure story. In the same year Stasiuk won the NIKE prize—the Polish equivalent of the Booker prize—for his travel book Traveling to Babadag.
So much then for the sneer occasionally heard that literary self-publishing is merely a form of vanity press.
White Raven, Tales of Galicia, and Nine, another award winning book, are the only books currently available in English, along with his latest, Fado. The word “fado” comes from the Portuguese and is applied to a type of song best described as melancholy or a lament. In other words, fado is a kind of Portuguese blues. The word in Portuguese literally means ‘fate’ and fate is often indifferent, sad, and ultimately unaccountable when it falls into the lives of people.
What an appropriate a title then to apply to a collection of essays about the sad lamentable history and forgotten byways and highways (actually dusty roads is more accurate) of Central and Eastern Europe.
Now who in the West can honestly say they have ever heard of the town Pogradec or of the obscure wistful village of Rudnany or the hamlet of Rasinami “smelling of hot oil, fried onions, pig and horse manure, hay and herbs”, till Stasiuk came along to describe their individual fates shaped and twisted by cruel wars, history, and soul-crushing communism and yet their ancient farming traditions persist.
Stasiuk sees himself as writing “a Slav On the Road” and like Kerouac he is interested in the off-beat and ignored detail, the ordinary guy on the street (or in Stasiuk ‘s case in the barley field or gypsy camp) but unlike Kerouac the heart of Stasiuk’s method is to write about “journeys superimposed with memory of readings, recollections of living and dead authors, literary landscapes and present occurrences” and he ignores or rejects the literary style to be found in the original On the Road. It is more the spirit of On the Road that imbues Fado.
Stasiuk’s essays in fact twist and turn, move back and forth through memory and time (and reflect on the nature of time and memory) like a car and move through various historical, mental, and natural landscapes; landscapes that were either ignored, unknown, or forsaken by the West until the fall of communism.
How timely it is then that the English translation of Fado is now available for us, the beginning of November of this year ( November 9 to be exact) being the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and the hasty collapse of the Soviet Bloc.
The towns and villages of rural Central and Eastern Europe are unknown places and perhaps even unknowable to themselves according to Stasiuk, but it is his mission to make them known or at least understandable. Both places were hijacked by politics, history, and their own inward looking rural traditions from the mainstream of Western European traditions, thus they were considered unsophisticated places by the cultural and intellectual elites of the West and were not worth a visit, much less places to write about.
The essays collected in Fado counter this view by taking seriously the history and landscape of this neglected part of Europe. Stasiuk writes eloquently and with penetrating insight about the effect of the collapse of communism on the people of Central and Eastern Europe, particularly the young who in Stasiuk’s view have managed to pick up and go nowhere with the trash and leftovers of Western pop culture. The posturing and bad behavior of some young rural Europeans is a type of identity crisis created by easy access to the false imported gods of consumerism and freedom and a neglect of the past.
Stasiuk, in other words, distrusts imported Western modernity or at the very least is skeptical of it as a straightforward blessing for this region of the world. He presents a more nuanced view. Stasiuk uses a variety of approaches to talk about his beloved rural Eastern Europe but his most effective technique is his use of the eye of the travel writer; what he sees and experiences is as important as what he thinks or analyses and he himself is as much a character in the landscape as the people and places he observes.
For example, in the evocative personal essay (actually they are all personal essays) ‘Tranquility’, Stasiuk recounts boyhood summers on his grandparent’s farm in Southern Poland. The farm in his memory is full of light and shadow and contains the repeated stillness and silence of endless hot summer days that coalesced in Stasiuk’s mind as permanent frozen images while time or the hours invisibly tip-toed away until evening and the cows returned from pasture. The farm is also a place where “nothing was wasted” and very little trash was created compared to the convenient and crass modern world.
Stasiuk’s essays often are implicit criticisms of the West and seem to suggest a past societal order, and thus a political order, superior to the present uncritical embrace of Western values. Stasiuk’s essays are also rooted in history and an awareness of literature as much as they are in landscape and atmosphere. His essay on Bulatovic, the great Serbian writer, for example, is used as an entry into the history and consciousness of the Balkans and how everything can be forgiven including the evil shallow murderous thug know as Arkan in the name of the ‘homeland’.
The tone of the essays varies depending on the topic. Stasiuk can be sardonic and wry when writing about his teenage daughter or he can be shrewd and analytical when talking about his own memory or he can be elegiac when writing about the small forgotten World War I cemeteries that dot the back roads of Southern Poland, which was once part of the former Austrian-Hungarian Empire.
Stasiuk also has a thing for odors, which should not come as a big surprise since smell is said to be the most powerful sense for evoking memory. Shepherds all over Eastern and Central Europe smell the same: “bonfire smoke, sheep manure, and cheese.” Old women on a bus returning from market smell of freshly starched clothes, cream, and chickens. The bus itself has an aroma of dark tobacco. The combination of odors in the town of Rasinami are so powerful on a hot afternoon it “makes one head spin.”
There is also a passion and attraction for the Mediterranean, which it seems, he shares with other writers from the East. Mediterranean culture seems to have a particular hold on the imagination of Eastern European writers. Stasiuk as a travel writer brings us news from the forgotten corners of Central and Eastern Europe. He does this by wearing many hats; he is a contemporary historian, a journalist, and an evocative poet with a nose—pardon the pun—for the telling detail and revealing incident.