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Times Literary Supplement, 2 April 2010

At the heart of Andrzej Stasiuk’s mercurial and moving salute to central Europe lies a passion for places so small they are unlikely to be marked on a map. Frontiers are casually noted, and mountains and rivers and road numbers, but the reader is often clearer which village or hamlet he is in than which country. Thus Stasiuk achieves his formal aim: to overlay a real landscape with a personal map that is closer to myth, and to overlay that with his own loves, fears and speculations.

Stasiuk, an acclaimed Polish writer who is more published in France and Germany than Britain, is obsessed by maps. His favourite is a diaphanously fragile copy of the Neue Verkehrskarte von Österreich-Ungarn, a tourist map of Austria-Hungary published by Freytag und Berndt in 1900, whose most fascinating feature is that “every godforsaken backwater” where a kaiserlich und königlich train stops, even if only half a dozen cottages, is marked. He is a perverse traveller, who continually diverts to those backwaters on his way to his destination; but when he dreams his dreams are of imaginary regions, where every newcomer receives a new name and epic wars are fought in which no one dies. As with people, he prefers towns that have different names in different languages, and his elected homeland is a region that itself is multiply named: central Europe, eastern, Europe, “worse Europe”, he calls it.

One cause of this multiplicity is the history of this “zone of mixed populations”, written in palimpsests of fatal collision and with shifting borders that both tantalize and mean nothing to Stasiuk. What captivates him instead is the polyvalence of place and the sheer depth of the past. “The past treats us with seriousness, which cannot be said of the future.” In that phrase lies a part of his book’s great appeal, for in its transparent translation by Bill Johnston Fado sometimes reads as a casual collection of sketches and essays more than a single travelogue, but none the less arrives at a unity of kilometres covered and meditations completed. Integral to the reader’s pleasure is the wildly contrarian spirit of those meditations, that revel in speculation and a constant pendulum movement between ideas and objects. Romania, for example, is singled out as “a land of marvels”. Past, present, and future coexist there. “Both the Range Rovers and pitchforks are completely real, because Romanian time is so ingeniously constructed that the notion of anachronism has no application here.”

We’re used to noting that the fragmentary structure of much modern central European writing reflects the shattering of the old system, but Stasiuk’s picture of the overall future of his region is equally unsettling: “There’s to be no more disorder, untidiness, irresponsibility, insouciance; there’s to be an end to the perverse love of a jinxed history… our penchant for fictions will be replaced with trust in a once-and-for-all conferred reality”. Outside the petrol station near his home in south Poland, where young Poles hang out in their imported cars, he has the impression of being among emigrants whose “true homeland is a Volkswagen Golf III” and imagines that all our nations will in future disappear – Poland, Italy, France – and in their place will be Fiat and Ford and Nokia.

This hymn to decline is all very well; but Fado also makes some poignant anthropological observations about our impoverishment. If ideas go, objects will disappear, such as the horse harness “that till now has acted as our coat of arms, and which the West stamped on most of the reports it received from these parts? And what about all the rest of the animality that’s embedded so deeply in our lives? What about the cattle that live so close to humans? What about the herds of cows returning at dusk from their pastures… the cattle smell, which reminds us where we really came from?”

Stasiuk is a stylist with a pleasing sarcasm to his introspection. A flash of P J O’Rourke appears in his speculation that the Moldovans’ main source of income in future will come from the sale of their own bodily organs, but chiefly the tone lies somewhere between Isaac Babel and Joseph Roth in its fusion of manic energy and frequent near-religious contemplation. Stasiuk is a devotee of the graves of central European authors and Austro-Hungarian war cemeteries as well as a spontaneous vagabond and compulsive border-crosser. As the latter he resembles most of all the Gypsies whom he claims will form the majority of Slovakia’s population in fifty years’ time, and whom he admires for their indifference to Europe’s pomp and property.

Tying geographical journeys to journeys of the mind, Stasiuk moves on to episodes from his present domestic life, commenting that the family’s “gentle, fragile continuity of gestures and emotions may well be what gives human life some meaning”. Focusing finally on his own boyhood, when he summered with his grandparents in the Polish countryside, and realizing that he was experiencing “something like eternity” as he watched his grandmother milk the cows in the dusk, he not only brings his themes of the hamlet and of our embedded animality full circle, but succeeds in making a final link in the chain.

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