'On the Road to Babadag' won all possible awards in Poland and for a while it was all everybody was reading and talking about. So imagine my disappointment when I started reading it and all I wanted to do was to hurl it against the wall. It’s because I thought this would be a travel book. I thought Stasiuk would leave some small town in Poland and go through Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Moldova, Serbia, Albania, Bulgaria etc. until finally he would reach Babadag, Romania where the book would end. It is called On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe, after all. So what else should I expect? I thought Stasiuk would tell me some funny anecdotes. I expected some musing over the cultural differences between here and there. I thought it would be like Michael Palin’s New Europe only written from a perspective of someone actually from that ‘New Europe’.
It is not really like that at all. This book is just pure poetry and you have to accept that to be able to read it. As soon as you do, you will embark on a journey that’s one of a kind. Stasiuk’s accounts of his travels are non-linear, context-free, often confusing, full of ‘maybes’ and ‘perhaps’ but what they never lack of is beauty. Even if he is fixated on the subject of animal excrement, he produces the most lyrical description of cow’s shit. Travelling for Stasiuk is not caused by the typical wanderlust. It’s more of a strong urge to be in the ‘here and now’. He writes when describing a trip he took in Poland before the borders opened:
“I had no passport then, of course, but it never entered my head to try to get one. The connection between those two words, freedom and passport, sounded grand enough but was completely unconvincing. The nuts and bolts of passport didn’t fit freedom at all. It’s possible that there, outside Gorzów, my mind had fixed on the formula: There’s freedom or there isn’t, period. My country suited me just fine, because its borders didn’t concern me. I lived inside it, in the centre, and that centre went where I went.”
This obsession with here and now is obvious throughout the book because Stasiuk’s descriptions are often careless when it comes to detail and context. He disarmingly admits he doesn’t remember where this happened or when, or whether it happened at all. He can only offer a collection of impressions, smells, sounds and sights, maybe a nameless person here and there, some sliver of a dialogue.
He stays clear of big cities and famous landmarks. He explores the backwater and laments its disappearance. He does get high on poverty and destitution. You almost get the impression he is offended by every new ATM or internet café which sprouts up in the villages he so fondly remembered to be completely free of any 21st century influence. He wouldn’t be the first and won’t be the last travel writer to fetishise backwardness. We have to forgive him for that because he writes it all so beauitifully:
“At the same hour, in that same dying light, cattle were coming home: from Kiev, say, to Split, from my Rozpucie to Skopje, and the same in Stara Zagora. Scenery and architecture may change, and the breed, and the curve of horn or the colour of mane, but the picture remains untouched: between two rows of houses moved a herd sated cattle. They were accompanied by women in kerchiefs and worn boots, or by children. No isolated island of industrialization, no sleepless metropolis, no spiderweb of roads or railroad lines, could block out this image as old as the world. The human joined with the bestial to wait out the night together.”
'On the Road to Babadag' is a lyrical journey through the provinces of Europe and through its subconscious. To Stasiuk that Europe is all that there is, that’s the centre of his universe, it’s where the heart of Europe beats. Thanks to that we are spared witty jibes and superfluous comparisons between East and West.