In this shrinking world, it is tempting to seek the remote in the distant. Travellers fly around the globe to find people living in our space and time but somehow separated from it – be they Amazonian Indians, Tibetan monks or Syrian dervishes.
Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk finds his parallel universe much closer to home – in the murky underbelly of Europe; in the Balkans and beyond, the lands that were once divided between the Austrian, Turkish and Russian empires and have still to find their place in modern Europe.
Stasiuk is a prize-winning author with a string of works to his name and his own publishing company specialising in the countries where he likes to roam. He is a self-consciously hard-bitten writer (whose career began when he was jailed for deserting from the Polish army) with a self-consciously hard-bitten style. His journeys are measured out with beers and cigarettes; his evenings with hard liquor.
He rejects cities as imports imposed upon a much older world. “A city in a trip is a disaster. Especially in countries that are like large villages. Villagers don’t know how to build a city. They end up with totems to foreign gods.”
Stasiuk follows his “perverse love for the periphery, for the provincial” as he traverses the outer edges of the former Austria-Hungary to the little Romanian town of Babadag. At the limit of his hunting ground, he feels “the continent ending, the sigh of the land, casting off its responsibilities”.
But geography does not interest him. “Geography orders space but muddles the head, and a man would rather be a fish than mentally straddle north and south, east and west”. So he runs free, twisting, turning and doubling back on himself. On the Road to Babadag is a compilation of many journeys bundled together in ways that readers cannot begin to unravel. Time doesn’t matter to Stasiuk either – he focuses on what he sees at that moment, then pours his reminiscences together to paint scenes locked in the past.
Not for him the modernisation of eastern Europe, the proliferation of mobile phones and job opportunities in the west. “Tomorrow never arrives,” he muses, “it remains in distant countries … Whatever is to come never gets here; it gets used up en route.”
On the face of it, this argument does not withstand scrutiny. Even impoverished Albania (a time-blasted country that Stasiuk clearly loves) has seen its economy advance in leaps since the end of communism. It takes effort to find so much immobility in the midst of so much change.
The rural poor romanticised by Stasiuk may be a repository of ancient wisdom, but they also have some ancient vices. He makes no apologies: “I love this Balkan shambles, Hungarian, Slovak, Polish, the amazing weight of things, the lovely slumber, the facts that make no difference, the calm and methodical drunkenness in the middle of the day, and those misty eyes that with no effort pierce reality and with no fear open to the void.”
Lurking beneath his romanticism is an appreciation of the conflicting realities. “Yes, everyone should come here [Albania]. At least those who make use of the name Europe … Albania is the unconscious of the continent. Yes, the European id, the fear that at night haunts slumbering Paris, London and Frankfurt am Main. Albania is the dark well into which those who believe that everything has been settled once and for all should peer.”
This is worth considering. History shows that the Balkans do indeed have the capacity to bite Europe on the backside.
Stefan Wagstyl is the FT’s emerging markets editor and former eastern Europe editor
On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe, by Andrzej Stasiuk, Harvill Secker, RRP£14.99, 272 pages