Fado by Andrzej Stasiuk

Moving back and forth through memory and time, these essays act like a vehicle moving through historical, mental and natural landscapes.


Publisher: Dalkey Archieve Press
Price: $13.95
Author: Andrzej Stasiuk
Format: Trade Paperback
Publication date: 2009-09

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.


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60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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The current cast of The Ferryman in London's West End. Photo by Johan Persson. (Courtesy of The Corner Shop)

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Northern Ireland, Rural Derry, 1981, nighttime. The local ringleader of the Irish Republican Army gun-toting comrades ambushes a priest and tells him that the body of one Seamus Carney has been recovered. It is said that the man had spent a full ten years rotting in a bog. The IRA gunslinger, Muldoon, orders the priest to arrange for the Carney family not to utter a word of what had happened to the wretched man.

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If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star Salim Shaheen, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people.

"Now I am just more tired and poor. So no, I haven't changed. I'm just older and more tired," says French radio journalist and documentarian Sonia Kronlund, as she looks back on the experience of making The Prince of Nothingwood (2017).

Joining Salim Shaheen, the most popular and prolific actor-director-producer in Afghanistan on his 111th no budget feature, Kronlund documents the week-long shoot and the events surrounding it. She crafts an insight into a larger than life persona, yet amidst the comedy and theatricality of Shaheen and his troupe of collaborators, she uncovers the heavier tones of the everyday reality of war and patriarchal oppression. If The Prince of Nothingwood will popularly be remembered for celebrating the creative spirit of its star, it is equally an important communication on Afghanistan, it's culture and its people. Alongside the awareness of the country cultivated by mainstream media news outlets, Kronlund's film offers an insight into a country that can humanise the prejudice and xenophobic tendencies of a western perspective towards Afghanistan.

In October of this year at the UK premiere at the BFI London Film Festival, Kronlund spoke with PopMatters about being driven by questions rather than inspiration. She also reflected on the subjective nature of documentary filmmaking, the necessary artistic compromises of filming in Afghanistan, and feeling a satisfaction with imperfections.

Why filmmaking as a means of expression? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?

Not really, no. I have always done documentary. I used to write scripts and TV series but I only make documentaries myself for radio and television. For this story, I figured out after a while that it deserved a bigger ambition and a bigger screen and that's why I don't very much believe in inspiration. To be honest, I made this film because I had to do something. I didn't have a big project where I thought: I want to make this. I went there and I found a little money and at the end the ambition and the inspiration came along the way. But there was not an urgent necessity to make this film. It fits with a lot of things that I'm interested in, like popular culture -- What does art stand for and why do we go to the cinema? What is the purpose? This is a question I'm interested in, but inspiration, not so much.

Has The Prince of Nothingwood provided you with the answers to those questions?

It has, and I hope it helps people to think about this question. It tells you that there is an urgent need to make images, to make films, even during war,and even if you don't have the money. And even if the films are not very good, they will find somebody who will like them. So something is going to happen, and I think that's very touching. I don't like Shaheen's films, I hardly watched them -- I paid somebody to watch them. But I'm very moved by all these people that do like his films, and it makes you think about the value of art and the purpose of why we make cinema. I used to study aesthetics in London, so it was one of the questions I had and while the film is lighter than this, that's what was in mind.

The film uses Shaheen as a doorway, beginning as a story about one man which becomes a story about Afghanistan, its people and culture.

Yeah, but it's not so much about Afghanistan and it's not my purpose is to say things about the country. There's one guy like him in Iran who makes cowboy movies in the Iranian desert and there's also a guy like that in Tunisia. I mean you have this person with an urgent need to film whatever they have under their hand and since it's war, then it tells you something about the war. But it's not so much interested in him.

There was a lot of editing, 148 hours that you haven't seen [laughs]. Making a documentary is really telling a story and I don't have any idea of objectivity -- it is my point of view on Shaheen. Some people say to me that they would like to show his films, that they really want to see his films, and I say: "You don't see how much I have edited. I show you the very nice parts of his films." People think he's a great filmmaker and that's the story I wanted to tell -- but I could have told another story.

To my mind, objectivity is a human construct, a falsity that does not exist.

Except mathematics maybe, and sometimes physics.

The purist opinion of documentary as objective is therein built on a faulty premise. From the subjective choices of the filmmakers that bleed into the film to the subjectivity of the subjects, it's not purely objective. Hence, it calls into question the traditional dividing line of the objectivity of documentary and the subjectivity of narrative fiction.

Totally! It's the editing, and why you chose this guy, how you film it and what you show, or what you don't show. It's not only subjectivity, it's storytelling. Not many people ask me about this, they take it for granted that it's the real Shaheen. But I'm not lying, I'm not saying things that aren't true, but I am telling a story, a fictional story out of what I filmed. I took scenes that happened one day and I put them with another story that happened three months later and that's why we had seven months of editing with three editors. So it was a lot of work.

One of the striking aspects of the film are the light and comedic moments offset by a darker and heavier sensibility, which include moments when, for example, Shaheen talks about arranged marriages.

We made 70rough cuts and there was one version we tested and you couldn't believe you were in Afghanistan. People would say: "Oh this is too funny. You don't see Afghanistan, it's just a bunch of crazy guys." I then said: "Let's put in a little more darkness." You then have to strike a balance and to me, if it's not perfect, I'm happy.

Shooting the film in a dangerous and volatile part of the world, was the approach that once you had enough footage you then looked to shaping the film in the edit?

It's not when you feel you have enough, it's finding a balance between security and artistic concerns. That's it. You have a plan and you have an agenda. There are things you want to do, but it has to be balanced with security concerns. The real story I was going to tell about Shaheen I found in the editing room and in the end, I only kept five days of the shoot. The whole film takes place in Bamyan (Province), nothing in Kabul, although I had weeks and weeks of footage there that I had to take away.

There's a moment when Shaheen asks if you are scared, which sees him verbalise our silent recognition of your boldness and courage to bring this story to the screen.

It's very difficult and it's not like you are walking in the street and there's a bomb. This is not what's difficult. The difficulty is to cope with your fear and to have rules and to follow or to not follow those rules. There are many foreign people that never go out at all in Kabul -- it is forbidden. You have British diplomats who do not even drive their car from the airport to the embassy -- they will take an helicopter that costs £2,000 each way. Then you have foreign people who walk in the street without a scarf -- these girls get kidnapped.

In between these you have Shaheen, who is telling me all the time that I'm too scared, because it's a man's value to be brave and he's a brave guy, there's no question about that. He was in an attack two weeks ago. There was a bomb in a Shia Mosque and he helped to carry out the bodies. So there's no kidding about the fact that he's a brave guy and he has to be because he's been fighting to make his films. But you are in the middle of this and I'm not a brave person at all and I don't think being brave is a very important question. It is, but I'm not brave, I'm very scared and so in the middle of all of this stress it's enough just to manage to not go crazy, or to not drink too much [laughs].

Salim Shaheen and Sonia Kronlund (courtesy of Pyramide Films)

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