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

He also can create haunting, evocative images only to undercut them at a moment’s notice. In Hungary he mentions following his guidebook in looking for a psychiatric hospital located at the end of what it describes as “a long and creepily empty square,” which leads Stasiuk to envision a horrific asylum as a metaphor for Eastern Europe as a whole.

My imagination evoked a large dusty space surrounded by crumbling buildings. Divisions in various uniforms file through the square from time to time, but they stay no longer than needed for the ravage and the rapine. They ride off, and the hot dust of the plain immediately hides the horsemen. From the windows of the hospital, the insane follow them with their eyes and pine, because in these eastern regions power, violence, and madness have forever lived in concubinage and sometimes in a completely legal union.

— p. 47

Following this exuberant, dark description, Stasiuk curtly mentions that upon arrival the place looked nothing like he’d imagined it but was a normal sanatorium in a shaded square.

The fact that On the Road to Babadag is not a travel book leaves the question open as to what kind of book it is. A comparison with one of Stasiuk’s predecessors is illuminating. Joseph Roth was also born in what was for a time Polish territory in Galicia, and like Stasiuk wrote novels and nonfiction that explored this phantom territory between Germany and Russia, relishing in describing Europe’s most exotic and inaccessible outposts. There are lines in this book that could have been pulled straight out of Roth’s nearly century-old novels or journalism:

The borders at the edge of old Europe must have looked like this: emptiness, wind, and garrisons, where you wait for something, for the enemy perhaps, and when the years pass and the enemy doesn’t show, you put a bullet through your head out of boredom.

— p. 51

This is the dusty borderland where Roth’s disillusioned officers and Jewish peddlers, gypsies and smugglers and refugees all rubbed shoulders as the world around them crumbled. Stasiuk’s conception of the places he visits draws heavily on the writers who created its mythology yet is never bookish, as if what Roth and Romanian writer E. M. Cioran wrote has blended into a kind of intellectual folklore, a poetry of the indeterminate east, and is no longer dependent on specific texts.

Stasiuk’s conception of the places he visits draws heavily on the writers who created its mythology yet is never bookish, as if what Roth and Romanian writer E. M. Cioran wrote has blended into a kind of intellectual folklore, a poetry of the indeterminate east, and is no longer dependent on specific texts.

Joseph Brodsky said of Roth that there is a poem on every page of his; the same is true of Stasiuk’s book. You can open it anywhere and find phrases that instantly demand to be reread for the weight of ideas and images they contain. The sentences come long and vivid as well as fragmentary, without verbs, as if he sliced his memories up into small pieces and put them back together in a different order. Considering how well the rich and evocative language of the book comes across is a testament to the excellent job done by translator Michael Kandel.

This strength though, the poems in prose that reveal this part of Europe in a wholly unique manner, can also be a weakness at times. Just as you can pick up the book at any point without losing the thread you can also put it down just as easily, its density, like over rich food, causing you to try to digest all you have taken in until you regain the strength to wade back in. As you go through the book you increasingly suspect that the “other Europe” is less a place than a sensibility, one which has paradoxically survived in the east precisely because of its neglect and poverty, that this lost world Stasiuk imagines can still be found in a Romanian village or Albanian port because it has not been given a fresh coat of paint or paved over as it would have been in the west.

At one point Stasiuk picks up a small map of Europe from a roadside inn that identifies by omission what the writer considers as his Europe. The map shows the capitals of Spain, France, Austria and other western countries but east of Prague and Budapest is a “terra incognita” without capitals and even without some countries altogether. Rather than trying to counter those omissions, Stasiuk relishes the blank and unfixed nature of what he finds in the east. Through writing, this book has — in a way — fit these countries and territories into a vast, united whole, as if imaginatively reviving former empires as Joseph Roth attempted to in his last despairing novels written during his Paris exile. Like Roth, Stasiuk’s imaginative effort is aimed at reconstituting a continent he considers home. He explicitly states that understanding Europe is impossible without taking into account the role of this “terra incognita” — that what is true for Albania is true for the east as a whole:

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. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer.

— p. 93

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