June 2011

Jonathan Crowl

nonfiction

On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk, translated by Michael Kandel

At first glance, On the Road to Babadag has a similar structure and motivation to Bill Bryson’s The Lost Continent: both are searching for something -- in Bryson’s case the perfect American small town he calls “Amalgam,” in Andrzej Stasiuk’s book -- at least toward the end -- a timeless place where life goes on now as it has for a thousand years since. Both books avoid large cities and meditate instead on rural life.

But the parallels end abruptly once the narratives commence. While Bryson becomes increasingly disgruntled and dissatisfied with small-town America, employing snarky humor and hustling through regions rather than stopping to appreciate, Stasiuk shines a light on the lost regions of Eastern Europe, particularly on the lifestyles that inhabit them, while continuing his search for a place he is not sure still exists. His travels take him through the parts of Europe that are caught in the blind spot of the Western world: Hungary, Romania, Moldova, Serbia and Albania, among others. In Stasiuk’s estimation, these are the places where experience is most authentic, the sights of the eye not corrupted by the impressions of media and travelers before them.

At the same time we are presented with a paradox: Stasiuk brings in to conversation the imperfection of memory. “I see now how little I remember, how everything that happened could have happened elsewhere.” Stasiuk admits that his recollections are only true to what his memory reports. The fallacies of memory affect every moment, every experience. What we know and believe to have seen and experienced is shaped not just by what we have learned and seen and done, but also -- sometimes more so -- by what we have seen incorrectly, assumed without confirming, misplaced elsewhere or invented on our own to make the incomplete whole. Stasiuk admits to as much in his book, piecing together memories with the caution that certain events may not have occurred where he is placing them. He is telling true stories without the pretense that they perfectly accurate.

Rather than diminish his work, Stasiuk’s honesty strengthens it. The map of Stasiuk’s work may have eraser smudges were markings were once made in error, and in some parts the path, the locales, the exact placement of certain events may blur. But the heart of these essays is not the geographical places. It is the space they create and occupy, one molded by political boundaries and their makers, influenced by the presence of mountains and rivers, but mixed together in a complex cocktail that makes these places unique from one another. Stasiuk shows, for example, how 40 years of isolation from the rest of the world has shaped the attitudes of Albanian market merchants. He paints a picture of life in Transnistria, a sliver of territory attempting to operate independently, but not so much to rile the Moldovan government. Space and place may appear to be similar concepts, but they are enormously different -- the same distance separates them as does a Lonely Planet travel guide to Venice from Venice by Jan Morris. Capturing the sights, sounds, tastes of a place is useful; capturing the essence of its space, what comprises it -- and how -- is much more artful, difficult, and ultimately informative. It is what transplants you to a faraway place. For Stasiuk it can bring ignorant foreigners to the oft-overlooked fold of the world.

Stasiuk’s style makes you long to drink pear brandies with coffee while admiring a gentle landscape bearing the scars of a violent, mad past. The narrative can be disorienting at times, seeming complicated by unusual names of villages previously unknown to us. In this way the book becomes richer: confused as we are by an unfamiliarity of place, we understand all the more how place is used to order space. Names and boundaries and shapes of countries are what we use to organize a world that operates independently of these political tracings. We fall short of understanding the world in its infinite complexity; we find pieces and create others to try and render an image from an incomplete puzzle. This book is one more entry in the story of our world, perhaps a mere footnote in the magnum opus that travel literature helps build without end, like a Tower of Babel. The unfamiliar reader can learn about the space explored through Stasiuk’s work, but without a solid grounding in the places it occupies, the space floats -- just out of reach, mocking us that we can’t fully understand it without seeing it ourselves.

On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk, translated by Michael Kandel
Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
ISBN: 0151012717
272 pages