Fado by Andrzej StasiukA fado is a plaintive song of yearning for a person or place that perhaps never was OR the natural title for Andrzej Stasiuk’s delicate, deeply-shadowed book of travels through the culturally blurred hinterlands of the former Eastern Bloc. “For several years now,” writes the journeyman, “I’ve been oppressed by visions. I set off for the southern or the eastern border, I come back a week or two later, and I try to establish what actually happened and what was a fiction.”
Speaking of Romanian vagabonds, (“We had reduced their humanity to an exotic image, they limited ours to the economy of their own survival”) Belgrade literati, (“adherents of a forbidden cult meeting in the catacombs”) and, especially, the unclaimed and mobile of Gypsies in Slovakia (where they are a near-majority of the population), Staskiuk sometimes sounds like his countryman, Bruno Schulz, whose dream of 1930s Poland, The Street of Crocodiles, is a “city of cheap human material [where] no instincts can flourish.” But Stasiuk’s travel route is a waking nightmare of ancient countries of inflicted infancy, of Eastern fallout and banal Western influence. But was it ever so?
Stray occurrences peep from behind the homogenous material of the world. Time cracks and falls apart and, in order not to go mad, you have to continually recreate it. This fragility, this transitoriness, this impermanence of time is a characteristic of my part of the world. Time here never flowed in the steady, calm current found in the great metropolises. There was always something in its way.
Stasiuk’s catalogue of carnivalesques occasionally outpaces landscape -- a chapter called “A Slavic On the Road” would’ve made a tidy subtitle -- to mediate on figures whose dislocation between the Old World and the rewritten Austro-Hungarian proximities recommends them to this collection. There’s the Good Soldier Svejk, Danilo Kis, the Serbian paramilitary mass-murderer Zeljko Raznatovic (“showmanship, kitsch, and barbarity were embodied in his person as in a living allegory”) and, in the oddly reverent “The Body of the Father,” John Paul II: “His face was quite unmarked by the stamp of distance, by the alienation or loftiness that inevitably accompanies a rise to power.”
Though I felt obliged to read my copy in the rain and the abiding atmosphere is of bleak no-places, Fado is more nuanced than the typically hopeless record of world’s end: two of the essays end with amens. But Stasiuk, the author of the Simenon-like Warsaw-noir Nine, is abidingly interested in contradiction and finds it more often in the rootless Polish youth lurking outside a gas station who salvage from the West “only remnants and its trash…the primitive, vulgar offerings of pop culture,” the prison in Ljubljana obligingly refashioned into a youth hostel, and Montenegro where “everything that was, becomes rejected in the name of modernity that assumes the nature of a fiction, an illusion, a devilish apparition.”
Nothing sticks to the tattered map superimposed over our haunted correspondent and his route save an atmosphere of muted sensation, of drained cities and tree-lined highways to nowhere. Given that many of Stasiuk’s literary heroes remain unavailable in English, Fado is an odd candidate for translation -- and the translation by Bill Johnston is beautiful, somewhere between Denis Johnson’s rattled candor in Jesus’ Son and the Hungarian director Bela Tarr’s long, still shots -- but its sense of story, albeit stories frozen in time and failing to begin, might indicate why Stasiuk was awarded Poland’s glamorous NIKE prize for another book of essays Going to Babadag. In any case, we’re lucky to have any literature that contains passages like the following, which grant grave and unusual insight into what the isolated West, having hatched the present, has imparted to the past with all the unreliability of memory and the impossibility of history:
If the West was parochial, then we practiced something that might be called pathological cosmopolitanism. We lived in our cities and countries in appearance only, because for us they were fictitious entities. They did not exist in and of themselves. Real life happened elsewhere in the West. Our world was unreal. We had to make it so, because otherwise we would have had to despise it. Attempts to render our world more real resulted in sorry expeditions into an idealized past, or a hazy millenarianism that proclaimed the imminent arrival of a miraculous hybrid -- the three-headed dragon of social equality, universal prosperity, and absolute freedom.
Fado by Andrzej Stasiuk, translated by Bill Johnston