Translated by Bill Johnston.
Winner of the Vilenica International Literary Prize
It begins with a road trip: a car driving at night in the rain, and a suggestion of mystery. He reflects on the dark houses he passes, and how no matter what ethnic heritage a person has, they are all the same when asleep in their beds. A map is essential to reading this, as he goes to a variety of cities and recounts what he sees as well as historical details and anecdotal stories from each individual place.
Much of his writing discusses the changes from Communism to newer political states, some still in their infancy (Slovakia). The past is complicated in Central Europe, and progress is equally difficult. Of Montenegro, he writes:
“Everything that was, becomes rejected in the name of a modernity that assumes the nature of a fiction, an illusion, a devilish apparition. To a greater or lesser extent this applies to all postcommunist countries. But it’s only in Montenegro that it can all be observed within the space of ten miles.”
This battle between old traditions and new identities is a continual subject, but it remains fascinating because each town he visits handles the conflict differently. He talks about the emptiness that is felt in places, where modernization has left many without a purpose. Yet he uses almost poetic words to describe these impressions:
Of Pogradec, “Pool has taken over the town. That noble game, combining geometrical abstraction with kinetics, allows a person to forget the everyday. The men circled the tables like they were hypnotized. They moved back, moved forward, judged distances, stepped on tiptoe and held their breath as if afraid that the moving spheres would change direction and the cosmic harmony of the game would be disturbed.” It’s not difficult to see the underlying correlation with the region in finding their place in history after the divisions of Russia and Yugoslavia.
In Levoka, he observes the local police, who group together in anticipation of a rebellion by Gypsy residents. The violence never occurs, but the image of the bored policemen, playing with their police dog and throwing snowballs, reveals a truism of the place: “Brute force, tedium, and play were combined in perfect proportions, but instinct told you that any one of these three elements could take over at any moment, and for no particular reason.”
In another essay he writes about the changing of the face of paper currency throughout Russia and the Slavic states. In earlier years, the images featured working men and women in simple settings. The implied meaning being hard work garnered money. Then as years passed, the illustrations became more abstract and conceptual, until they evolved into paper faces of famous heroes. There was a political meaning behind each image, and Stasiuk shows how the meaning of money changed too. Change occurred yet again, during difficult economic times, to another theme: “the patrons of this inflationary series were of course artists and writers. In my part of the world, when times are uncertain we usually turn to culture, since it’s a domain whose failures are not so glaring…”
Stasiuk’s ability to combine history with contemporary issues is amazing because it’s so readable, never dry or boring. He doesn’t get off track trying to make a political statement or place blame, and at times it’s difficult to even guess his position in the controversial matters he discusses. He never judges the people or even presumes to suggest a solution. An especially fascinating scene was played out at the end of the day in Rasinari, when the cows, oxen, and goats returned from grazing loose into the village, all on their own.
“This daily parade was like a holiday. The whole village came out of its homes onto the road and watched the passage of the livestock. Children, old women in headscarves, men in small groups smoking cigarettes-everyone watched as the animals unerringly found their way to their own farms and stood by the gate waiting to be let in. This ritual had been repeated for centuries and everything in it was self-evident, complete, and in its own way perfect.”
Special thanks to Martin Riker of Dalkey Archive Press for this Review Copy.