Saturday, 25 May 2013

on the road to babadag [andrzej stasiuk]

Recently I learnt that Bolano wrote listening to heavy metal on his headphones. Franzen needs white noise. There always seems to be some debate about what are the best conditions for writing. How to disconnect yourself from the world in order to open up the interior space and let it loose on the page.

Reading Stasiuk’s remarkable prose I wondered how he goes about producing it. On The Road, as the title suggests, is a road movie of a book. A travel journal, to put it another way. But the prose itself feels like driving down a road. Through Eastern Europe. A road that sometimes meanders, sometimes crawls up hills, sometimes freewheels down them. Sometimes seems to turn into a blazing motorway. And sometimes, too, it feels as though the writer loses control of his vehicle, as the language takes over, barrelling forwards relentlessly, chasing the stars.

The book itself is an account of the writer’s wanderings through the netherlands of Eastern Europe. Places which, for the average Western European, might as well be in Asia. Moldova, Albania, Romania, Transylvania, Slovenia. However, his investigation is more abstruse than this. Stasiuk shuns the cities as far as possible, preferring to delve into the backwoods, searching out the roots that hark back to a rural Europe, unchanged by modernity. He doesn’t like motorways and he likes getting lost. He shows little interest in the tourist sights, preferring to drink beer or the local tipple in a bar than visit Roman remains. The writer seems to be on a constant search to find the essence of this other Europe which has managed to preserve itself in the face of the barrage of the modern world’s relentless quest for uniformity. Places are not the same as one another. They are different and people evolve with this difference as a result.

Stasiuk diligently investigates these differences. He searches out the thinginess of things, seeking the way in which man, beast and object are so tightly defined by one another that it’s sometimes hard to tell the difference. This is the world of the object from the  pre-consumer age, when the individual retained a different relationship to matter. His descriptions of these societies, preserved by their place on the European margin, have the resonance of a William Carlos Williams poem and the intellectual acuity of Foucault’s Les Mots et Les Choses.

The book is split into several sections detailing his journeys in various countries, until the last essay, a long, haphazard, semi-stream of consciousness where he allows himself to hop from place to place, name to name, creating through the act of writing alone a kind of communality between these corners of Eastern Europe. It’s bravura writing, perhaps inspired as the title suggests by Keroac, but something all of its own at the same time. In the chaos of words which flash like sparks, passages of the most extreme beauty and insight emerge. This is writing as incantation, spell, lyric. Geography is let loose on the page and places converge and separate as though these names on the map are part of an ancient dance that Stasiuk alone has managed to unveil.

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