Destination: Eastern Europe
Book: [amazon_link id="0151012717" target="_blank" ]On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe[/amazon_link] (2004, newly out in paperback) by Andrzej Stasiuk
So few of the place names in On the Road to Babadag were familiar, that I began to wonder if I had ever left the farm.
Actually, Andrzej Stasiuk, a Pole, wrote this for a Polish audience, who might have more of a clue than many geographically-challenged Americans about such places as Hidasnémeti, Sátoraljaújhely, Gönc, Chisnau (which my Word Press editing panel doesn’t even provide the proper accent marks for), or Baia Mare. But maybe not.
Of course I am reading about this unconventional road trip in an English translation of the original Polish (it was first published in French), but I still had that feeling you have when you can remember just a wee bit of the foreign language you studied in college, and you’re trying to read a newspaper. Lost. And getting lost in a new terrain is part of what On the Road to Babadag is about.
While Hungary teeters on the edge of the known world (in traveler’s terms), other Eastern European countries that obsess Stasiuk have been at war or closed by dictatorial leaders for long periods of time–Romania, Macedonia, Croatia, Transylvania, Slovenia, Slovakia, Serbia. And where does Moldavia fall on your must-see list of countries? (Just saying.) Since I have been addicted to Greece forever, I come with built-in prejudice against Albania, but I’ll be talking more about that poor benighted country in a future post about a terrific book I’m currently reading by an Albanian writer. Besides, Stasiuk says:
Yes, everyone should come here. At least those who make use of the name Europe. It should be an initiation ceremony, because Albania is the unconscious of the continent…Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer.
On the Road to Babobab spills out lists of city names, snippets of scenes, a jumble of odd characters in stream-of-consciousness fashion. The book mesmerizes with its jumps through time and space and its lack of coherent narrative. True, from time to time, Stasiuk fastens on one subject for a few pages–like the differences in money, or the way that people react to a certain event. And he always hones in on details that paint an indelible picture.
I finally took his chapter on maps as a hint, and sat with the Atlas open to the Balkans on my lap underneath his impressionistic book of travel memories. Aha! He was not just making up those places I had never heard of. They exist. Not only that, they must be pretty significant sized cities, or they would not be showing up on my[amazon_link id="0415164613" target="_blank" ] Atlas[/amazon_link]. And as he says,
It is good to come to a country you know practically nothing about. Your thoughts grow still, useless. Everything must be rebuilt.
If you go with the flow– let the unknown names wash over you– before long you will be rewarded by one of his pithy insights. He likes to discuss place as metaphor.
We had gone to Nagykálló because, according to our guidebook, “at the end of a long and creepily empty square,” stood a psychiatric hospital. Which might be some kind of physically manifested metaphor, I thought, a metaphor for Eastern Europe.
On the Road to Babadag takes some getting used to for those accustomed to conventional travel memoirs that center on the experiences of the writer, because this one concentrates on the impressions rather than actions. He does not set the scene and tell us how many countries, what area, what population. He does not introduce himself. Although we learn some things obliquely, later in the book. He does talk about his own uneasiness with trying to capture something useful and on the uncertainty of memory.
He is not traveling to a popular destination and extolling its art, landscape, gourmet food, or opportunities for extreme sports. Instead he describes The Other Europe as a land that endures rather than achieves. He likes decay. He seeks out the Gypsies, people without a country. Me with my love of disintegration, my sentimental fondness for whatever doesn’t look the way it should, he says of himself.
Because these are disintegrating societies, he feels compelled to visit and record what he observes before time erases all trace.
This is not an easy book to write about. It was not an easy book to read. And yet it introduces an unknown half of a very well-known continent. When I polled readers not long ago about what places A Traveler’s Library should talk about, someone suggested Eastern Europe. If you have an interest in Eastern Europe, and a taste for expressionistic writing, tackle On the Road to Babadag, a literary travel memoir that deserves a place in a traveler’s library.
Disclaimers: The publisher provided an advance uncorrected proof. If you buy the book (using one of my Amazon links-hint!) it is possible that words I quote may have changed. The pictures all come from Flickr, and once more I am amazed at the arcane subject matter that can be found there. Please click on the pictures to learn more about the generous photographers who share.
If you are stuck with English, then go to his Facebook Page.