Andrzej Stasiuk writes beautifully, powerfully and vividly. Of that, there is no question.
The acclaimed Polish novelist and essayist takes a turn exploring some of the more unfamiliar corners of Europe in "On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe." Originally published in 2005 in Poland, where it won the Nike Literary Award, a top honor in that country, the English translation is now available.
And what a translation project it must have been.
Stasiuk writes beautiful sentences, pure and simple. And he writes in a breathless, stream-of-consciousness style that channels Jack Kerouac, from whose classic work the book's title echoes, whether by intent or by a coincidental quirk of translation.
It is a frenetic, can't get-it-on-the-page-fast-enough style of the Beat writers that demands some buy-in by the reader. Some sentences run on for nearly a full page, prompting thoughts of whether Stasiuk gets paid by the comma. It's a challenge to read, but yields big rewards.
This is not a typical sprightly travelogue, filled with charming villages and interesting strangers met on trains. It's an impressionistic journey through the bleakness of post-Communist Eastern Europe: dark, chaotic, corrupt, yet defiantly resilient.
History has constantly reinvented Europe, and the past 40 years have been no different. The rise of the European Union and its single currency, the fall of the Soviet Union, the peaceful split of Czechoslovakia, the reuniting of Germany, the violent ripping apart of the former Yugoslavia have been part of that constant evolution.
With a chip on his shoulder as broad as the Carpathian Mountains, Stasiuk makes the point that, through all the changes Europe has endured, a constant of history has been relegating places like Albania, Moldava and Slovenia to second-class status.
In a series of journeys over several years, sometimes alone, sometimes with unnamed friends -- it's not organized chronologically or, for that matter, any other way -- Stasiuk travels by car, train, taxi and boat from Poland to points south and east.
Babadag, incidentally, is a city on the west coast of the Black Sea. It is not Stasiuk's ultimate destination, because this is not a journey through physical space as much as it is a journey through culture, politics and history through the mind of a Pole, who knows something of being victimized by history.
"On the Road to Babadag" is, at times, angry, funny, charming and depressing. His descriptions of the landscape, of the Gypsies and even the peculiarities of different currencies and what they symbolize, put his readers in places they've never been. And he likes the pubs. If there is beauty in bleakness, Stasiuk has found it.
Jim Anderson is a news reporter at the Star Tribune.