‘On the Road to Babadag’ Is a Very Existential Report from the Fading Frontiers of the Continent

Roaming the rarely touristed back roads of Central and Eastern Europe over 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. Andrzej 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.” Stasiuk reasons why the territory he explores remains so enticing, despite its lack of attractions. The region’s humanity emerges as its inhabitants, whatever their shifting identity–even in a village where one family identifies as Romanian, and their neighbors as Hungarian, Russian, or Ukrainian–assert themselves in various languages, or in the silences that they use to express their incomprehension with Stasiuk’s attempts to communicate. Their humanity can be heard, he reasons, in their attempts to talk to him, or to ignore him. 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 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, which runs about 90 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 place names, 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 end notes 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.

RATING 6 / 10