Fado
by Andrzej Stasiuk (translated by Bill Johnston)

Published by Dalkey Archive, (2006, trans 2009)

“To travel is to live.  Or in any case to live doubly, triply, multiple times.”

Andrjez Stasiuk was born in Poland in 1960.  After being expelled from school and joining the peace movement, Stasiuk was imprisoned for deserting from the army. 

After his release from prison, Stasiuk began writing, has authored more than 15 books of fiction, essays and travel writing.  In 2005 was awarded the NIKE award (an annual literary prize for the best book published in Polish) for his travel book On the Road to Babadag which was published in English in 2011. He lives away from Warsaw in a mountain village near the Polish border with Slovakia. 

Although translated into English before On the Road to Babadag, Fado was actually published in Polish afterwards.  

Fado (the titles refers to a melancholy style of Portuguese song), is a melancholy mediation on the themes of modernity and memory set against the parts of Europe bordering Poland.  Fado is lyrical and powerful and commands the attention from its  opening paragraphs which are reminiscent of the opening of Lynch’s Lost Highway:

“Best of all is night in a foreign country on the highway, because at those times foreignness extends across the entire earth and sweeps everyone up indiscriminately in its flow”

A series of essays rather than a continuing narrative travelogue (possibly because although Stasiuk likes to travel, he does not like to be away from for longer than three or so weeks), Fado is better read as a whole.

His themes are modernity, the past and memory and describes places where the past co-exists with the present and contrasting the lives played out in those places with the time in which those lives are lived.

He and a photographer friend stop take pictures of Romanian gypsies who “come from long ago when people needed much less” but were trying to live in the present and after they exact a price for the photos paid in cigarettes he observes “we had reduced their humanity to an exotic image, they limited ours to the economy of their own survival.”

The places Stasiuk takes us to or not ones we are familiar with:  Belgrade, the Carpathian Mountains, Pogradec and the Accursed Mountains in Albania, Montenegro, Slovakia, Slovenia and of course Poland.  

Stasiuk is drawn to places in the margins, places that seem like the end of he world or have dream like qualities, their reality “a little dulled at the edges, a little rounded”.   He shifts from Montenegrin resorts and their “tawdry imitation of the modern” Stasiuk to places where the past still exists and “only the cars moving along the highway remind us that it is the twenty-first century.”

There is at times an ethereal quality to Fado.  Driving through lands “inhabited by forgotten people leading inconspicuous lives” the countryside passes in a blur outside Stasiuk’s car window until he stops to fix his gaze on something and then his descriptions are vivid and his images potent.  From the Dante-es que description of gypsies living in an abandoned mine to describing the beauty in the colours and scenes of autumn in remote parts of Poland.

Written at a time when Central and Eastern European countries were joining the EU, Stasiuk’ examination of this mixing of East and West Europe and what each may mean to the other is captivating (“Yes, indeed, two hundred million new Europeans is a real challenge.  It ought to drive the sleep from people’s eyes and fill them with anxiety and joy, because what will happen next will resemble the discovery of a new continent.” and “Is it possible to merge two streams of history that have flowed separately alongside one another for so long.”).  Given current debates about immigration in Europe his observations still resonate.

Stasis is often compared to Jack Kerouac.   That is unsurprising given Stasiuk seems to invite such comparisons (“So then, all of this reminding myself, this sitting on my backside in the semi-darkness and constantly travelling backwards, this staring into memory’s rear view mirror, this lyric of loss, this Slavic On the Road that I’m knocking out on my typewriter – at three-fifteen A.M”) but there is much more to him than that.

Despite his themes of memory, loss  and modernity, Stasiuk is examines the current situations of the countries he visits and also considers were they are going in terms of culture and identity.   In that sense, his work is vital and therefore indispensable to helping to understand countries with which many of us are only just becoming familiar. 

There is a biography of Stasiuk and his work at www.culture.pl.

 

 

 

 

 

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