Phantom Countries – On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe by Andrzej Stasiuk

On the Road to Babadag

On the Road to Babadag:
Travels in the Other Europe

BY Andrzej Stasiuk
BY Michael Kandel
(Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2011)

From the Publisher:

“Andrzej Stasiuk is a restless and indefatigable traveler. His journeys take him from his native Poland to Slovakia, Hungary, Romania, Slovenia, Albania, Moldova, and Ukraine. By car, train, bus, ferry. To small towns and villages with unfamiliar-sounding yet strangely evocative names. ‘The heart of my Europe,’ Stasiuk tells us, ‘beats in Sokolow, Podlaski, and in Husi, not in Vienna.’

Where did Moldova end and Transylvania begin, he wonders as he is being driven at breakneck speed in an ancient Audi — loose wires hanging from the dashboard — by a driver in shorts and bare feet, a cross swinging on his chest. In Comrat, a funeral procession moves slowly down the main street, the open coffin on a pickup truck, an old woman dressed in black brushing away the flies above the face of the deceased. On to Soroca, a baroque-Byzantine-Tatar-Turkish encampment, to meet Gypsies. And all the way to Babadag, between the Baltic Coast and the Black Sea, where Stasiuk sees his first minaret, ‘simple and severe, a pencil pointed at the sky.'”

They lived in the old Jewish quarter, at the edge of a Slovak town, at the foot of a Hungarian castle, so in order to exist and not disappear, they had to create their own rules, their own special theory of relativity, and a gravity that would keep them on the surface of the earth and not let them fall into the interstellar void, into the vacuum of oblivion.

On the Road to Babadag, p. 17

Named after a woman abducted by Zeus in Greek mythology, Europe has retained something of its mythic identity in spite of the best efforts to provide it with a real-world definition. Brussels is the current locus of this probably hopeless defining process, yet it is the only slightly less recent and far less benevolent attempts to solidify the amorphous space of the continent directed from Moscow and Berlin that are most relevant to the “other Europe” Andrzej Stasiuk’s book purports to explore.

Though filled with the author’s incessant movement through Hungary, Slovakia, Romania, Slovenia, Ukraine, Albania and Moldova, this is definitely not a travel book. Travel books, even the most literary, are supposed to make each place distinctive while Stasiuk does his best to blend and blur the towns and borders he passes through. Crucially, this is not simply a stylistic decision but what he sees as an inherent characteristic of this part of Europe:

No trip from the land of King Ubu to the land of Count Dracula will hold memories you can rely on later, as for example you can rely on Paris, Stonehenge or Saint Mark’s Square.

— pp. 10-11

Unmoored, the reader is led through towns that have had four or five different names as they have switched countries and empires. Many of the chapters are titled with these unrecognizable names, words made of masses of consonants and unfamiliar accent marks. The reader’s experience is paralleled when Stasiuk describes trying to decipher the names of Hungarian towns on highway signs, the strangeness of which “freed our trip from geography, letting it follow instead the path of fairy tale, legend, toward a childhood in which the sound and music of words mattered more than their meaning.”

What is more, the trips recounted in the book have no chronological sequence and are clearly taken as a collage of his travels in the region. One moment Stasiuk writes about being stranded or waiting for a train, while in the next moment he inexplicably appears behind the wheel of a car in an entirely different country. It is not only geography that gets blurred but time as well. Stasiuk has an ever present awareness of the ghosts that inhabit these landscapes, evoking Austro-Hungarian cavalry as vividly, or with as much unreality, as he paints the present-day inhabitants.

At times that unreality reaches hallucinatory heights, such as when he describes the breakaway territory of Transnistria as a “phantom country” that “in places looks like a film set” or when he describes “some kind of nothingness that for a moment attempted to be a bus station.” Even his own objectivity is called into question as it is during a train ride to Bukovina when he writes “I remember nothing in particular of that trip, so I must invent it from scratch.”

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