Vilenica 2008 Prize Winner: Andrzej Stasiuk
The Polish writer, poet, essayist, and literary critic Andrzej Stasiuk was born in 1960 in Warsaw. As an activist in the pacifist movement, he deserted the army in the early 1980s and spent a year and a half in prison. Later he started moving in circles close to the music, rock, and punk scene, publishing articles in fanzines and alternative newspapers until he left Warsaw for the countryside in 1986. It was only after the fall of the communist regime that he made his literary debut with a short story collection based on his prison experience, although the main protagonist in the book is language.
He still lives and writes in a village called Wołowiec in the Low Beskids, a mountain range in the Carpathians, in the South of Poland. Besides fiction, Stasiuk writes book reviews and feuilletons, which he publishes in the weeklies Tygodnik Powszechny and Gazeta Wyborcza, and in the daily Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. He has received several literary awards for his achievements, including the Foundation for Culture Award (1994), the Kościelski Foundation Prize (1995), the Raczyński Library Prize for Dukla (1998), the Machiner Prize (1999), the Samuel Bogumił Linde Literary Prize (2002), the Adalbert-Stifter-Prize (2005), the Literary Prize NIKE for Going to Babadag (2005), and the Arkady Fiedler Award, known as the “Amber Butterfly”, for Fado (2007).
Together with his wife Monika Sznajderman, Andrzej Stasiuk also runs a publishing company. The family publishing company, Czarne, specialises in contemporary Eastern and Central European prose and essays. Their publications include numerous works by authors from the Bosnian, Croatian, and Serbian language areas, such as Danilo Kiš, Dubravka Ugrešić, Muharem Bazdulj, Daša Drndić, Tatjana Gromača, Bora Ćosić, Miljenko Jergović, Nenad Veličković, and Vladimir Arsenijević, as well as the Slovene author Jani Virk.
Wiersze miłosne i nie (Verses Amorous and Otherwise), 1994
Mury Hebronu (The Walls of Hebron), 1992, short stories
Biały kruk (White Raven), 1995, novel
Opowieści Galicyjskie (Tales of Galicia), 1995, short stories
Przez rzekę (Across the River), 1996, novellas
Dukla, 1997, short stories
Jak zostałem pisarzem, Próba biografii intelektualnej (How I Became a Writer. Attempt at an intellectual biography), 1998, autobiographical prose
Dziewięć (Nine), 1999, novel
Opowieści wigilijne (Christmas Tales, together with Olga Tokarczuk and Jerzy Pilch), 2000, short stories
Zima i inne opowiadania (Winter), 2001, short stories
Jadąc do Babadag (Going to Babadag), 2004, literary travelogues
Fado, 2006, literary travelogues
Dojczland (Doitchland), 2007, literary travelogue
Moja Evropa, Dwa eseje o Europie zwanej środkowa (My Europe: Two Essays on So-called Central Europe, together with Yuri Andruhovich), 2000
Tekturowy samolot (Cardboard Airplane), 2000
Dwie sztuki [telewizyjne] o śmierci (Two [Television] Plays on Death), 1998
Noc. Słowiańsko-germańska tragifarsa medyczna (Night – A Slavo-Germanic Medical Tragifarce), 2005
Ciemny las (Dark Woods), 2007
The books by Andrzej Stasiuk have been translated into almost every European language as well as into Korean and Japanese. Slovene translations: Devet, 2004, Na poti v Babadag, 2007; Albanian translation: Rrugës për në Babadag, 2006; English translations: Tales of Galicia, 2003, White Raven, 2000, Nine, 2007; Czech translations: Haličské povídky, 2001, Jak jsem se stal spisovatelem, 2004, Dukla, 2006; Finnish translations: Valkoinen korppi, 1998, Matkalla Babadagiin, 2006; French translations: Par le fleuve, 2000, Dukla, 2003, Contes de Galicie, 2004, Mon Europe, 2004, Sur la route de Babadag, 2007; Croatian translations: Devet, 2004, Moja Europa (dva eseja o takozvanoj Srednjoj Europi), 2007, Zima, 2007; Italian translations: Corvo bianco, 2002, Il Cielo sopra Varsavia, 2003; Lithuanian translation: Pakeliui á Babadagŕ, 2006; Hungarian translations: Galíciai történetek, 2001, Fehér holló, 2003, Az én Európam, 2004, Dukla, 2004, Útban Babadagba, 2006; German translations: Der weisse Rabe, 1997, Die Welt hinter Dukla, 2000, Wie ich Schriftsteller wurde, 2001, Neun, 2002, Galizische Geschichten, 2002, Die Mauern von Hebron, 2003, Über den Fluss, 2004, Unterwegs nach Babadag, 2005; Dutch translations: De witte raaf, 1998, Dukla, 2001, Galicische vertellingen, 2007; Norwegian translation: Dukla, 2004; Romanian translations: Europa mea, 2003, Cum am devenit scriitor, 2003; Russian translations: Belyj voron, 2003, Duklja, 2003; Slovak translation: Dukla, 2004; Serbian translation: Beli gavran, 2004; Spanish translations: El mundo detrás de Dukla, 2003, Nueve, 2004; Swedish translations: Världen bortom Dukla, 2003, and Nio, 2004, as well as Ukrainian translations: Moja Jevropa, 2001, Dev’jat, 2001.
From the laudation by Jana Unuk:
The oeuvre of Andrzej Stasiuk, whose unique literary sensitivity freshly illuminates and brings within our grasp the landscapes of Central and Eastern Europe, merges geography, memory, and imagination into a lasting, coherent, distinctive literary image. Over the years, the plot weft of Stasiuk’s writing seems to be disappearing, giving way to the lyrical warp where exquisite descriptions of places, landscapes, roads intertwine with a sensitivity to the metaphysical basis of the world and of human life.
Ever since Stasiuk’s first book, his trademark has been a compact lyricism, expressed in revelatory illuminations of beauty and empathy and set against its opposites on the scale of human emotions: the brutality and the description of utter humiliation in The Walls of Hebron (1992), the spare report on ordinary people’s lives in the Polish countryside during the transition of communism to capitalism in Tales of Galicia (1995), the oblivion, neglect, and void experienced in the isolation of a Carpathian village, as in Dukla (1997), or on the “escape route leading south” in Stasiuk’s literary travelogues: Going to Babadag (2004), Fado (2006), and Doitchland (2007). Similarly, Stasiuk’s two novels, White Raven (1995) and Nine (1999), largely use their plots – the so-called human stories – as starting-points for describing the settings, the Carpathian landscape in the former and the metropolitan skyline of Warsaw in the latter.
Stasiuk’s writing is marked by place more deeply than by time or history. His latest books are set on the road, in perpetual motion and exploration of the place. Stasiuk’s literary travelogues elaborate the style of the lyrical description bordering on epiphany and of memory’s fragile fabric, similar to the style he had created in Dukla, except that their setting spreads to the landscapes of Central and sometimes of Southern Europe. Stasiuk’s roads start in the Carpathians, circle around the backyard of his Central Europe, sometimes extending to the Balkans, particularly Albania, and curve back to his Carpathian homeland.
What news remains to be told about Central Europe, how can it be shown in a still new light and brought closer to the reader’s experience? Reviewing Stasiuk’s book Fado, Polish literary critic Michał Paweł Markowski acknowledges the delicacy of the task faced by a writer who wants to add his own pebble to the mosaic of already existing descriptions and definitions of Central Europe: “Almost all of Stasiuk’s latest texts seem to have been written on the road, somewhere in Central Europe, which is his true homeland, between Albania, Rumania, Hungary, Slovakia, encompassed within a radius of 300 kilometres and centred at Wołowiec, a Carpathian village where Stasiuk lives today. About Central Europe, however, everything has already been written and more; it has been transformed into a myth, precious but gradually decaying into a brittle dump for the clichés produced by the intellectual opponents of the West. It is difficult to add a single original page to this library, particularly if – like Stasiuk – one is not a writer of ideas but of experience transformed by memory” (in: M. P. Markowski, The Unpredictable, Austeria, Cracow, 2007, p. 122). Stasiuk meets the challenge in his own way. To him, Central Europe is a fiction, but its very fictionality makes it a peculiar domain of liberty, where, as the author said in an interview for the Slovene newspaper Delo in March 2005, everything is still possible: “What is left of that ‘capacious concept’ [Central Europe], then, is ‘gypsy fiction’, trickery and lies, something we can pull away from any time, a tale that can’t be verified by anyone. This geographical area is a legend, it is literature in its purest form.” This concept is even more radically severed from extraliterary, non-fictional reality in his essay The Logbook, included in the book My Europe: Two Essays on So-called Central Europe, which compares Central Europe, torn between “an East which never existed and a West which existed too much”, to a ship drifting with the winds, which blow from the East towards the West and back again. Stasiuk’s answer to the enigma of Central Europe lies in enhancing her literary quality.
Ever since Stasiuk’s first book, his trademark has been a compact lyricism, expressed in revelatory illuminations of beauty and empathy and set against its opposites on the scale of human emotions: the brutality and the description of utter humiliation in The Walls of Hebron (1992), the spare report on ordinary people’s lives in the Polish countryside during the transition of communism to capitalism in Tales of Galicia (1995), the oblivion, neglect, and void experienced in the isolation of a Carpathian village, as in Dukla (1997), or on the “escape route leading south” in Stasiuk’s literary travelogues: Going to Babadag (2004), Fado (2006), and Doitchland (2007). Similarly, Stasiuk’s two novels, White Raven (1995) and Nine (1999), largely use their plots – the so-called human stories – as starting-points for describing the settings, the Carpathian landscape in the former and the metropolitan skyline of Warsaw in the latter. The story of White Raven, set in the hills near the Slovak border, is a homage to adolescent male camaraderie, which is, like the characters’ later attempt at reviving it, doomed to fail in the stark reality of adult life: the myth of a present-day quest, of an adventure hunt, ends in violence, senseless death, and flight. The novel Nine portrays the reality of post-socialist Poland and the Warsaw world of shady entrepreneurs after the 1990s introduction of the free market. Coming after the short story collections, which are mainly set in the countryside, Nine is a descent into “the belly of Warsaw”. In contrast to the narrative time of the novel, which is compressed almost to the limit, the narrative space expands in breadth, for the Warsaw of Stasiuk’s portrayal transcends her metropolitan boundaries, not only diving into the chasms of her underpasses and rising into the sky above her streets, but also spreading out in space like a web – both the grid on the map and the spiderweb enmeshing the helpless, humanly powerless protagonists of the novel.
Stasiuk’s writing is marked by place more deeply than by time or history. His latest books are set on the road, in perpetual motion and exploration of the place. Stasiuk’s literary travelogues elaborate the style of the lyrical description bordering on epiphany and of memory’s fragile fabric, similar to the style he had created in Dukla, except that their setting spreads to the landscapes of Central and sometimes of Southern Europe. Ever since the book Native Realm by Czesław Miłosz, consciously written for the Western European reader, introduced the ironic concept of the so-called “other”, “lesser” Europe, lying ubi leones, on the blank areas of maps, much ink has been spilt in attempts to refute the flat, stereotypical image of that other Europe, to shed light on its history and on the advantages arising from it. Stasiuk, however, seeks to prove nothing: with a Gombrowicz-like, subversive gesture he has chosen this “other” Europe for himself, perceiving its charm precisely in its apparent inferiority.
For Stasiuk, Western Europe is not a mirror in which to observe himself – either himself or his corner of Europe. He neither longs for it nor admires it – he may sooner be said to ignore it because it cannot feed his imagination. As Stasiuk tries to persuade us in Doitchland, a humorous narrative about a writer’s Gastarbeiter drudgery in “sixty German towns”, written at a single stroke, Western Europe by itself is not interesting. It is interesting only at its tattered edges where its sleek plastic fullness splits along the seams, only where it reflects a dim image of the continent’s dusty, muddy peripheries, exposed to scorching summers and freezing winters. The farces Night (2005) and Dark Woods (2007) portray the relationship between the European West and East as a grotesque bartering of goods between wealthy clients on the one hand and black labour force and sellers of spare body parts on the other. The essay Parody as a Way of the Continent’s Survival in Fado expresses the concern that the unique lifestyle of Eastern Europe may disappear in order to parrot the decline of the West, in whose flowering it had no part.
Stasiuk’s poetic literary travelogue stands out from the tradition of the Polish travelogue essay. If Zbigniew Herbert’s essays, describing his travels in the footsteps of the European Mediterranean civilisation and through Western European museums, once sought to bring Western culture to readers trapped in the narrow confines of a totalitarian state, Stasiuk brings to his readers the atmosphere and imaginary projection of places they will never visit because it will never occur to them to do so. Stasiuk’s roads start in the Carpathians, circle around the backyard of his Central Europe, sometimes extending to the Balkans, particularly Albania, and curve back to his Carpathian homeland. They bear place names strung out like beads on a rosary, and it seems as if the magical role, power, and significance of these places were gathered in the ringing sound of their names. Often they are hamlets in border regions, bearing three, four, or even five names. We will never learn, for example, what Babadag looks like – the place with the magical Turkish name to which the book owes its enigmatic, fairytale title. In vain would we expect to read about real places which might wait for us out there until we had mustered the time and courage to visit them ourselves. Reality can only be grasped after it has withdrawn into the past, therefore the narrator of the book does not stop at Babadag, nor at Abony, where André Kertész, the famous photographer, took the picture of a blind fiddler and his little son in 1921 – although this picture is so important to the writer that it becomes a symbol of the mutual immersion and layering of art and space in his work. “The space of this picture has hypnotised me, and all my travels serve a single purpose: to find at last the secret entrance into its interior,” he wrote in The Logbook.
Literature does not take shape on the road but in the haven of the home, with the writer reminiscing about the places seen, looking at his own snapshots and at photographs taken by the great masters, fingering banknotes and coins long withdrawn from circulation, which are nothing but nostalgic souvenirs today … Its subject is space, space altered by imagination and memory. Memory has been the key to Polish literature at least since World War II. What Stasiuk appeals to, however, is not the collective historical memory but rather his personal memory, closely linked to his imagination and a prerequisite for his creativity. “Every morning I wake up and wait for events to fade into the past. It is only then that they become distinct, acquire a meaning,” we read in Fado. What can be described is not the raw material of the events but their memory, and when memory lets the writer down, it must be replaced by imagination. “When I try to recall them, I have to imagine them,” says the author in a passage on his grandparents. When we consider how fragile, inadequate and unreliable human, individual memory is, we forget the paradox inherent in this claim.
Irresistibly attracted to decay, decomposition, dust, ugliness, intolerable heat, the writer seeks the same on his journeys – the familiar, homely and expected, the characteristic orchestration, the unique atmosphere, the almost Baroque lyricism of decomposition, of transience, of merging with the greyness and insignificance of everyday life, backwater places, and the people living there. The kind of places that he likes best and that are soonest reached from the village of Wołowiec in the Low Beskids. When travelling in geographical space, he never seems to be searching for anything new. On the contrary, he is ever in quest of his own – the repeatable, the familiar, the homely; rather than for a new beginning, he searches for an end, for decomposition, for decline. Stasiuk sees the same tableaux everywhere: scenes of greyness, poverty, a proletarian Poland – both of his youth and of the contemporary everyday life. From Southern Poland, Ukraine, the Czech Republic, etc., he sees stretching all the way to the southern edge of Europe a single undifferentiated world. According to the jacket of the Polish Going to Babadag edition, the book is “a journey into the inmost consciousness of one living in this part of Europe, which has always been considered inferior, belated, primitive, and backward”. Certainly, but perhaps it is above all a journey into a single consciousness, the writer’s or the narrator’s. In this sense, the portrayal of Central – as well as of Eastern or Southern – Europe emerging from Stasiuk’s work is a charming, persuasive fiction, both a paean to our corner of the world and an easy renunciation of “Western Europe’s golden towers”.
Translated by Nada Grošelj
Foto © Kamil Gubała