PopMatters is moving to WordPress in December. We will continue to publish on this site as we work on the move. We aim to make it a seamless experience for readers.

Books

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

This sense of going somewhere ill-defined, and ending up not quite nowhere, permeates this account. Andrzej Stasiuk ends up at Babadag in Romania only because not far from there, he can go no further east.


On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe

Publisher: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
Length: 272 pages
Author: Andrzej Stasiuk
Price: $23.00
Format: Hardcover
Publication Date: 2011-06-17
Amazon

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.

6

Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology provider that we have until December to move off their service. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to fund the move and further development.


Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

The Power of Restraint in Sophie Yanow, Paco Roca, and Elisa Macellari's New Graphic Novels

The magical quality that makes or breaks a graphic novel lies somewhere in that liminal space in which art and literature intersect.

Books

'People of the City' Is an Unrelenting Critique of Colonial Ideology and Praxis

Cyprian Ekwensi's People of the City is a vivid tale of class struggle and identity reclamation in the shadows of colonialism's reign.

Music

1979's 'This Heat' Remains a Lodestone for Avant-Rock Adventure

On their self-titled debut, available for the first time on digital formats, This Heat delivered an all-time classic stitched together from several years of experiments.

Film

'The Edge of Democracy' and Parallels of Political Crises

Academy Award-nominated documentary The Edge of Democracy, now streaming on Netflix, lays bare the political parallels of the rise of Bolsonaro's Brazil with Trump's America.

Music

The Pogues' 'The BBC Sessions 1984-1986' Honors Working-Class Heroes

The Pogues' BBC Sessions 1984-1986 is a welcome chapter in the musical story of these working-class heroes, who reminded listeners of the beauty and dignity of the strong, sooty backs upon which our industrialized world was built.

Music

Mary Halvorson Creates Cacophony to Aestheticize on 'Artlessly Falling'

Mary Halvorson's Artlessly Falling is a challenging album with tracks comprised of improvisational fragments more than based on compositional theory. Halvorson uses the various elements to aestheticize the confusing world around her.

Music

15 Overlooked and Underrated Albums of the 1990s

With every "Best of the '90s" retrospective comes a predictable list of entries. Here are 15 albums that are often overlooked as worthy of placing in these lists, and are too often underrated as some of the best records from the decade.

Books

'A Peculiar Indifference' Takes on Violence in Black America

Pulitzer Prize finalist Elliott Currie's scrupulous investigation of the impacts of violence on Black Americans, A Peculiar Indifference, shows the damaging effect of widespread suffering and identifies an achievable solution.

Music

20 Songs From the 1990s That Time Forgot

Rather than listening to Spotify's latest playlist, give the tunes from this reminiscence of lost '90s singles a spin.

Film

Delightful 'Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day' Is Good Escapism

Now streaming on Amazon Prime, Bharat Nalluri's 2008 romantic comedy, Miss Pettigrew Lives for a Day, provides pleasant respite in these times of doom and gloom.

Film

The 10 Best Horror Movie Remakes

The horror genre has produced some remake junk. In the case of these ten treats, the update delivers something definitive.

Television

Flirting with Demons at Home, or, When TV Movies Were Evil

Just in time for Halloween, a new Blu-ray from Kino Lorber presents sparkling 2K digital restorations of TV movies that have been missing for decades: Fear No Evil (1969) and its sequel, Ritual of Evil (1970).

Music

Magick Mountain Are Having a Party But Is the Audience Invited?

Garage rockers Magick Mountain debut with Weird Feelings, an album big on fuzz but light on hooks.

Music

Aalok Bala Revels in Nature and Contradiction on EP 'Sacred Mirror'

Electronic musician Aalok Bala knows the night is not a simple mirror, "silver and exact"; it phases and echoes back, alive, sacred.

Music

Clipping Take a Stab at Horrorcore with the Fiery 'Visions of Bodies Being Burned'

Clipping's latest album, Visions of Bodies Being Burned, is a terrifying, razor-sharp sequel to their previous ode to the horror film genre.

Music

Call Super's New LP Is a Digital Biosphere of Insectoid and Otherworldly Sounds

Call Super's Every Mouth Teeth Missing is like its own digital biosphere, rife with the sounds of the forest and the sounds of the studio alike.

Music

Laura Veirs Talks to Herself on 'My Echo'

The thematic connections between these 10 Laura Veirs songs and our current situation are somewhat coincidental, or maybe just the result of kismet or karmic or something in the zeitgeist.

Film

15 Classic Horror Films That Just Won't Die

Those lucky enough to be warped by these 15 classic horror films, now available on Blu-ray from The Criterion Collection and Kino Lorber, never got over them.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.