Review: On the Road to Babadag, by Andrzej Stasiuk
Travel writing abounds. Authors look for what’s interesting, unusual, informative and, these days, exotic. Not so the award-winning Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk. He prefers the absolutely normal, unpretentious, sleepy everyday experience found in locations best described as being at the back of beyond.
In Hungary, for example, it’s not the bright lights of Budapest or the cultural history of the major towns which lures him. Rather he’s drawn to eastern Hungary and places unfamiliar even to most Hungarians – Gönc, Telkibánya, Bózsva, Pálháza, Kéked or Füzér. He arrives by slow-moving local train or in his car, map spread across the steering wheel. He walks down the main street, if there is one, sits at a bar, drinks pálinka and beer chasers, and watches the locals. There’s not much going on but he observes and occasionally interacts with someone, even travels with them for a while.
It’s the same in other countries – Albania, Romania, Moldova and the internationally unrecognised non-state of Transnistria. The latter, with its throwback atmosphere pre-dating post-Soviet times, is a perfect back-of-beyond type of place for Stasiuk. Nothing appears to have changed.
Yet wherever he is – and often it seems the country he’s in is neither here nor there – there’s always a mood to be captured and observations to be made. There are hay wagons, tractors, cattle and sheep, men in rubber boots, old women in black, barefoot kids and time which has decided to stand still. Unsurprisingly, Gypsies abound. They are “my obsession”, he admits, though he’s also fond of border wastelands and the slow river ferries in eastern Hungary.
“Clearly I am drawn to decline, decay, to everything that is not as it could or should be,” says Stasiuk. “Whatever stops in half stride because it lacks the strength or will or imagination to continue. Whatever gives in, gives up, does not last, and leaves no trace. Whatever in passing stirs no regret or reminiscence. The present imperfect.”
Buy the book
On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe
By Andrzej Stasiuk
Hardback, 255 pages, illustrated
Harvill Secker, 2011,