On The Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk

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On The Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk

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Category: Travel
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: Travelling on the backroads of Eastern Europe is like travelling in time, or outside of it. Stasiuk's memoire of many journeys is beautifully translated from the Polish by Michael Kandel
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 250 Date: July 2012
Publisher: Vintage
External links: Author's website
ISBN: 9780099507147

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Sometimes we should trust our instincts. When I saw Babadag on the Shelf I knew I would love it. When I sat in my garden on a hot sunny evening and struggled my way through the first chapter, I had my doubts.

Oh, ye of little faith...!

The following day was wet and grey, and much more in keeping with Stasiuk's aimless meanderings around The Other Europe. His Europe is an older Europe, a lost Europe, except for the fact that it's very much still there. It is the outer reaches, as we in the European west might consider them, if we consider them European at all, of Slovakia, Hungary, Slovenia, Croatia, Ukraine, Romania, Albania...

The author was born in Warsaw in 1960. In his early twenties he deserted from the army and spent 18 months in prison for the privilege. It might not have been a plan, but it might have been fate. He wrote a series of hugely successful short stories about his experiences and now runs a small publishing house with his wife. He is an incessant wanderer. Wanderer feels like a more appropriate word than traveller. He may have a specific aim when he sets out, but even that will be a whim... to see where a scene from a novel was set, or where an author or a hero is buried... but the aim is there, it seems, only to get him through the door and on the road. Thereafter, he's free to change his mind and go somewhere else. This is the freedom of someone who travels because to travel is to live (as someone else said), and simply chooses to write about it afterwards. Of course being able to publish your own work, must help in that regard. It is the freedom of someone who has not sold an idea for a travel book to a publisher and then found himself with an itinerary to stick to.

The travelling is the thing. In and of itself.

The writing is something else again.

In every sense of that expression.

On the Road to Babadag is much more of a memoir than a travelogue. Stasiuk writes from memory, from recollection, thoughts conjured by photographs or passport stamps or harboured small change coinage. He collects notes for currencies that he knows he might outlive and treasures them as works of art, artefacts of culture, national memory, national psyche encapsulated in grubby pieces of paper which very large numbers on them, that are worth so very little.

He recalls places, people, incidents. One or other or all three, but often not entirely sure of the when or the where. It could have been... he will say, ..or maybe... It should be annoying but in the measure of his words, the tone of the overall piece, it isn't, it's mesmerising. It underlines the fact that, actually, it could have been any of those places, since they are all so indistinguishable.

Life in the remote villages he visits is lived as it has been for hundreds if not thousands of years. Mostly there is electricity and light and cigarettes and occasionally western goods in all their power and worthlessness...but always the people do what they do: getting through the days in a slow enduring fashion, living close to their animals, living off their land, sharing with each other, working hard when there's work to hand, but not necessarily looking too hard for it when it isn't.

They are places where the mark of man is often so slight as to be seeming to be absorbed back into the earth even as it's still thriving. But also places where a fleeting paranoia lives on in 600,000 concrete bunkers that watch across silent hillsides. Endurance is not always a force for good.

If you think the world is too much with us now, for the people Stasiuk encounters, it's not with them half enough. If you think there are too many of us, too busily bustling thoughtlessly through our urban urbane lives, the picture he paints may be something of a shock, for this is a world, where you can travel a whole day and see no-one, where the fellow-travellers you do meet are as like to be on a horse-drawn cart as a passenger train, where a bus ride is a social event. This is the world here and now.

Written less than a decade or so ago, there's nothing to suggest it has changed for the better in the meantime.

The jury is out on whether travelogues should be illustrated. Stasiuk has got it dead right. He doesn't burden us with photographs that suggest a reality exists behind everything that he describes. After all, his aim seems to be to suggest that there is no reality, only passing imagination painting scenes upon the world and creating lives out of the canvas in front of us for a moment. I can't find the precise quote, as I write, and he'd condemn me for seeking it out, but Time he says is just a piece of eternity we carve out for our own use (or words to that effect).

He gives us a sketch map of Europe from the Baltic to the Adriatic and the Black Sea. Marked are the tiny places he guides us through, with only one or two familiar names for orientation.

He gives us two photographs.

The first I failed to tie to a particular event. A Romanesque man and a young boy stare into the camera. It looks like a railway station. People bustle in a blur behind them, except for the one slumped against the wall, begging maybe, or just settling in for the night. There is a puzzled defiance in the eyes of the subjects.

The second is the picture that started it all. A blind violinist is led across the street by a barefoot boy. I'll say no more... this you should read in his words.

And I only wish I could. What I get is Kandel's translation from Stasiuk's original Polish. In places what I get is Kandel's translation of Stasiuk's Polish rendition from someone else's translation from whatever the original language was.

The resultant English-language edition is a treasure. If it has lost anything in translation then I can but envy the Poles. If it has kept it all or even gained a little then Kandel deserves as big a salute as Stasiuk.

Travellers and poets: you must read this.

For more reflections on place (a very different place and much closer to home) try Strands: A Year of Discoveries on the Beach by Jean Sprackland

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Buy On The Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy On The Road to Babadag by Andrzej Stasiuk at Amazon.com.


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