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Europe’s self-view is changing

I’ve just finished a piece for Prospect about how European literature is changing: how it’s been changing since the Berlin Wall came down, but because deep change is so slow we’re only just becoming aware that there is a redistribution of literary priorities occurring. It is, as all the best changes are, ahead of the politicians; it’s also ahead of the high table of western Europe’s writers, ahead of the journalists, ahead of the satisfied model of EU expansion and its model of consumer democracy. The change is taking root out of the old centre of Europe. Even though almost all of those countries’ leaders rushed them out of the Soviet sphere and into EU membership, their writers did not tend to follow: writers such as (the list is very partial) Imre Kertész, Dubravka Ugrešić, Yuriy Andrukovych, Péter Nádas, Jáchym Topol, and Andrzej Stasiuk.

Stasiuk, a Pole, especially embodies the vividness of this alteration, because he is – for better and worse – an extremist. In his recent books published in English, Fado and On the Road to Babadag, he gives us a new view of Europe and gives us it whole. Barely political, contrarian, melancholy, addicted to the poetry and physicality of place, avoiding big cities and the big material questions – “screw where we’re headed, I’m only interested in where we came from” – his writing, a mixture of travel and streamed meditation, is existential rather than sequential, stubborn rather than analytical, inconsistent rather than pretending any objectivity, but systematic in its interest in something western Europe’s writers have paid little attention to for decades: the human condition. Towards the end of On the Road to Babadag Stasiuk writes that he keeps a tin box full of loose change on a shelf: “When I am low, I dump it out on a table, to revisit all the pubs, shops, bus and train stations, petrol stations, and cabs in which I obtained it. The coins remind me of things and places: the street stalls in Saranda, the lane stanchions on the Slovenian highway A1, the ferries on the Tisa, the parking meters on the Szentháromság tér….”

This is a sector of the continent that his cherishing gaze sees slipping slowly into the conferred reality of modern euro-Europe. His inspirations are maps of Slovakia, Hungary, the Balkans (the more folded and frayed the better), cheap Kossuth cigarettes, the Romanian Romantic Emil Cioran, cows, dogs, gypsies, raki. His Europe is filled with animals, “the huge muddy swine on the road between Tiszaörs and Nagyián, the dogs in the beer gardens of Bucharest, the buffalo in Răşinari, the horses set loose in Chornohora”. As a countrywoman answers when he asks why she has so many cows if no one buys milk: “We have to keep something, don’t we?”

Stasiuk’s Europe is filled with his love for decline and decay: for the ancient hospitality of innkeepers in rural Hungary, the men who smoke on street corners in northern Romania “staring at the emptiness of the day”, their bodies “more expressive the less meaning they have”. He knows his attitude is benighted, that he would be kicked in the arse by those he celebrates if they knew what he was writing.

Yet the question that haunts his work is how much we would lose if eastern Europe adopts the west’s largely materialistic economic and political models. His answer is: everything. His Europe is irreplaceable. And I can personally vouch for his version. A few years ago I drove from London to Odessa, and encountered the western blindness about the other continent when my hundred-year -old Mercedes broke down in Slovakia. I phoned Europ Assistance and gave them my location, on a poppy-edged road between Senec and Sládkovičovo. Five hours later they called to say that they could not locate me on a map of Slovenia. They couldn’t locate me, because they had forgotten that in unknown places things also happen: that if you cannot find your hotel in the town of Nitra a police escort will take you there, or that in the ravines of the Carpathians beyond the Ukrainian border you can turn blue from the lightning that chases you.

Stasiuk’s journeys are irresistible poetry. His book is about people in time: its sheer physicality is a token of its strength, as if it’s wrestling with a fundamental problem of where we find ourselves in time as well as space – a very corporeal problem of existence and meaning, a physical existentialism that defines a relation to the world that we need to grasp again, or lose for good.

My Prospect article (in the November issue) goes a bit further than this: it compares Stasiuk’s work with that of a number of others – Eco, Grass, Nádas – but I feel like cheering his revival of those existential questions. It’s about time. We’ve spent too long thinking our perspective is the only one, and everything is settled for good.

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