Reviewed by Robert Buckeye
"Everything happens at the same time. In the shadow of the nuclear power station at Cernovoda on the Danube, you can hear the rumble of carts drawn by donkeys, while herds of cattle wander across main roads. In the cities, you can see country girls in folk costume, and in the villages boys dressed like rappers on MTV."
The Other Europe no longer exists, its past no more than a memory, its life marginalized in the new world of runaway capitalism. Communism may have left its footprint but did not conquer. The West imposes its will but triumphs less than destroys. Its unrelenting Otherness remains. "We are strangers in [Europe]," Stasiuk concludes. "We come from outside, from lands about which Europe itself has only the vaguest notion and which it treats more like a threat than a part of itself."
Fado begins on the road, trips Stasiuk has taken, arriving, always, where there is no arrival, at places time and progress have passed by—Rudnany, Pogradec, Stroze, Krompachy, Spisske Podhradie—where those cast off must manage, somehow; those outside the gas stations of small towns, who "make love, drink, and do business . . .[and] have cars but . . . don't have anywhere to travel to in them." Not even Slovaks may know that Rudnany, Krompachy and Spisske Podhradie are in the Slovak Republic. "Here, history uprooted nations and generations," Stasiuk explains. "The twentieth century constituted an interruption in cultural continuity . . . An inhabitant of this part of the world . . . looks back and doesn't find anything he can lean on."In this unreal world only the history before there was history remains, the memory of memory, and Stasiuk searches for signs of it everywhere to find something he can lean on, not only where the road takes him, but also where memory leads him: boyhood summers at his grandparents' farm far from Warsaw; Pope John Paul II's return to Poland before his death, where he becomes once again Karol Wojtyla, who "left us with his death, as if it were an exercise we would have to complete without his help"; his daughter's youth reminding him of his own. Every year he marks All-Soul's Day, "a tribal, barbarian holiday" that resists commercialization. "Our memory is not enough," Stasiuk notes. "We have to feel our dead physically."
If one lives in the past, one dies there. One must find a way to live without being buried by the past or having to follow the instant practice of the West ("We have to become you," Stasiuk notes. "After all, no one expected you to be the ones who would change."). In order to do so, he returns to degree zero, as it were, in search of life outside time and place where—somehow, somewhere—one can begin to begin. Near Spisske Podhradie, Stasiuk comes upon a Gypsy community which challenges his sense of "Europeanness." "They lived in a former Jewish neighborhood, on the outskirts of a Slovak town, at the foot of a Hungarian castle, and so in order to exist, in order not to disappear, they needed to establish their own rules, their own particular theory of relativity, their own law of gravity, which would keep them on the surface of the earth and prevent them from vanishing into the cosmic void, the abyss of memory . . . [Their houses] looked like ideas that had just begun to materialize."
On the way to Pogradec in Albania, Stasiuk hears an Albanian woman singing a Portuguese fado song on the radio. "Both countries lead somewhat unreal lives beyond the main flow of history and events," he thinks. "Portugal can at best dream of past glory, and like Albania can long for fulfillment to be brought by some undefined future." Fado. The music of mourning and nostalgia. The music of the poor. The music—yes—of hope. The music Stasiuk hears at 3:15 a.m. while writing this book.
In Nine, originally published in 1999, Stasiuk's Warsaw, a city still numb from Communism, is now ravaged by the new world order of capitalism; the Zone of Tarkovsky's Stalker, where nothing is habitable and what was understood yesterday useless today. The past in Warsaw is little more than a ruin; the present no more than the shifting sands of the market, which offers, if it offers anything at all, no more than a shaky foothold. "WonderBra, Coca-Cola" the German band Rammstein screams at every corner. In this world, there was nothing to guide one, since "the time when sons repeated the gestures of their fathers was gone." Only the busses and trams that take the same routes they did before give the city any cohesiveness and permanence, even if their passengers measure the daily destruction of the city on their road to nowhere. ("Down the concrete gutter of Lazienkowska thoroughfare foamed a colourful sewage of cars, a stream of glistening vomit flowing from east to west and west to east.")
White Raven, published four years before Nine, anticipates the return to Warsaw Stasiuk would make in that novel. A band of thirty-something friends whose lives have been aimless are challenged by one of their group, who complains, "our lives are shit and so we should do something." They leave for the mountains of southeast Poland to test themselves against nature, "like during a landing operation, when everyone has to take care of himself." Some kind of wisdom trip one thinks; guerrilla warfare another says; a die-to-live trip a third hopes. But one of them murders a border guard and they are forced to flee deeper into the mountains. It ends with one of the group killing another and then himself. The bicycle chain may swing in the streets of Warsaw, but against the natural, romantic backdrop of mountains the gloves come off.
Increasingly Stasiuk's prose in these two novels is stark, inexpressive one reviewer says, bedrock flat, if at times oblique. He gives the details of seeing, not their interpretation.. We understand only what his exhaustive accumulation of detail offers. ("Everyone has to take care of himself. Even the artist and audience," he notes). For Stasiuk to offer an explanation of what is, in effect, inexplicable or unbelievable is to prevent us from seeing it. In Nine, Warsaw must speak, not Stasiuk.
Even when details add up, they do not add up. In Nine, Zosia leaves lights on after she has been raped, because "Things are too clear in the dark," and during the day wears white, because "in the day white is invisible." The narrator of White Raven recalls "the stark neglect and poverty which we cultivated so carefully [in Warsaw] in the belief that everything important had to be hidden, that the meaningful could not speak directly."
Stasiuk is the new face of Eastern Europe, part of a generation of post-Fall writers, including Dubravka Ugresic and Peter Pistanek, not burdened by the Communist past as their predecessors were, that stormed across the West in a caravan called the Writers' Train in 2000, as if they were Genghis Khans on the Trans-Siberian Express. He is a student of flight, drift, transit, if not their master. The nine of Nine are always on the move, escaping what threatens them or searching for what they do not have. The group of friends in White Raven leave Warsaw to regain lives they have lost. Currently Stasiuk lives in the Beskids Mountains on the Slovak-Polish border following a trajectory of expulsion from high school, desertion from the army (legend has it in a tank), prison time, pacifist activity.
In Fado, Stasiuk puts the blasted landscape of Nine ("every lavatory lady used to tell stories Scheherazade wouldn't dream of when she finally hit the sack") and the horrors of Darwinian survival in the mountains behind him. "This lyric of loss, this Slavic On the Road," he describes the book, footnotes his novels, giving them the analytic hinge he refuses in his fiction. In Fado, he outlines why the East is a stranger in the West and still a threat to it; how the long history of the twentieth century uprooted the East; in what ways capitalism puts so many lives in the East at risk. Fado also follows his search—the legacy of the road—for a new life, his "Europeanness" questioned from either side, not only by the West but also by Gypsies, who Stasiuk is drawn to because their "ahistorical presence" defies understanding by the modern world.
"Home was the place from which the world could be founded," argues Mircea Eliade, a writer Stasiuk quotes. "In traditional societies, everything that made sense of the world was real." In the East today, home is but a ruin and the real no more than a memory, but one must find something to guide one. "We must work with what we have," Amiri Baraka reminds us. "From wherever in the landscape." It keeps Stasiuk rooted to where he is but also puts him back on the road. Yesterday matters if it is gone. Today must have a life. Tomorrow a future.
Robert Buckeye has had two works of fiction published, Pressure Drop and The Munch Case, and has written on film and art as well as literature.
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