S h amb l i n g Th r o u g h t h e B a l k a n s ON THE ROAD TO BABADAG: TRAVELS IN THE OTHER EUROPE
By Andrzej Stasiuk (Translated by Michael Kandel)
(Harvill Secker 255pp £14.99)
WHILE READING On the Road to Babadag I gradually came to realise that I had a fair amount in common with Andrzej Stasiuk. Apart from anything else we are among the few people to have visited the curious town of Soroca in the ‘lawless’ Republic of Moldova and to have met Artur, the eccentric Gypsy Baron with a long, forked white beard and a black Volga limousine in his front garden, its windscreen riddled with bullet holes.
Soroca s i t s on t he edge o f t he Dniester River on the border between Moldova and Ukraine, and its Gypsy quarter is, as Stasiuk writes, ‘unlike anything else in Moldova’. I would say it is unlike almost anything else anywhere. Glittering Gypsy palaces cluster upon a bank above the river – one of them, with four full-size statues of rear ing horses atop a classical pediment, is a copy of the Bolshoi Theatre. Others, more Indian in inspiration, have ogee arches and onion domes. As I walked a round admir i ng Baron Artur’s palace he played, with rippling arpeggios, the Russian folk song ‘Oci Ciornie’ on the piano, which seemed appropriate, although a little surreal – but then life in Eastern Europe is like that.
Despite our common bond, when I fir st opened Stasiuk’s book my heart sank to see that it was written in what might be called a stream of consciousness. I suppose the title should have given it away. So I searched for Kerouac’s On the Road on my bookshelves, in order to compare the two books, but it was nowhere to be found. Then I dimly remembered lobbing it into the bin a few years ago having given up on it. The omens for On the Road to Babadag were not good.
As I turned its pages, however, my initial misgivings faded away. I allowed myself to settle back and enjoy being taken on this alternative mystery tour to the farthest reaches of Eastern Europe. ‘I love this Balkan shambles,’ he writes. It is indeed a shambles, and I love it too. Then I read descr iptions like that of Romania’s first locomotive being pulled over the hills by twelve pairs of oxen, the riveted demon proceeding through the countryside to the crack of whips, while the Romanian villagers ‘stood dazzled, made the sign of the cross, spat on the ground in disgust, fear and awe’. The drivers’ hearts were uneasy and they drank themselves senseless at night by the camp fires, as ‘flames flickered in the dark-blue eyes of the oxen’.
‘After a life in which I saw many nations and read many books, I reached the conclusion that the one who is right is the Romanian peasant,’ wrote the Romanian philosopher Emil Cioran. Stasiuk, too, feels that it is the simple, rural life way of life of the peasants and poorer Gypsies that is, or should be, eternal. The old men and women ploughing with horses are to him of ‘biblical poignancy’, the Gypsies are of ‘an ancient and unsettling beauty, not encountered today’. It is those who keep to their old ways of life – working the l and, tending animals – who will endure because our throwaway culture is by its very essence impermanent, and even now ‘trembles at the imminence of its demise’. The train was indeed something of which to be afraid, as the precursor of greater evils.
For me this book has a peculiar charm and power, and it may well have the same effect on anyone who has t r ave l l ed f rom one cor ner o f Eastern Europe to the other, steering their way through the ‘shambles’ and passing the obscure towns and villages he mentions. Stasiuk has witnessed the mess wrought upon these unfortunate places by their Communist past, and then, adding insult to injury, by the blundering intrusion of what he calls ‘the rotten West’. His images are powerfully incisive, but you must go with the flow of the stream of consciousness, revel in his turns of phrase, and not expect too many facts and figures; indeed there is often a vagueness about where Stasiuk is at any one time, or when he was there. The Gypsies, he points out, are not interested in such precision, but in legends and folk tales which begin vaguely with ‘once upon a time’. Stasiuk, like the Gypsies, is interested in impressions, and that is what will remain when you have finished this book: a lyrical impression of a troubled land, plunged headlong from an almost medieval way of life into the maelstrom of the modern world in the space of a few years. To order this book for £11.99, see LR bookshop on page 12
LITERARY REVIEW August 2011