Monica Carter's Reviews > Fado

Fado by Andrzej Stasiuk
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's review
Aug 14, 2009

really liked it
Read in August, 2009

Since we are now waist-deep in the vast and rugged literary landscape of Eastern Europe, it's appropriate to introduce a book that is the ultimate travelogue to accompany us on our journey. Fado by the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk reads like a urban shepherd traversing the land around him not for answers to questions he has, but he goes out in search of questions themselves. He wanders and wonders, observing the pastiche of histories within the newly defined borders of Eastern Europe. Stasiuk gives us a wink-wink homage to Kerouac by calling his book the "Slavic On the Road" which lets us know that although his observations may be in a melancholic tone, he doesn't take himself too seriously. He enlightens by describing the many facet of Central and Eastern Europe, the essence of it's geography and how it affects their way of life. There is a chapter entitled, Bulatovic, about the Balkan writer Miodrag Bulatovic who deeply influenced him. It leads him to some interesting musings on solitude:

Oh, this Central European solitude! This perpetual orphanhood for which there is no cure, because medicine doesn't work retroactively and cannot bring back what has died. A perpetual, unrelenting solitude and abandonment. Post-Great Moravian solitude, post-Jagiellonian solitude, post-Austro-Hungarian solitude, post-Yugoslavian solitude, post-communist solitude. The loop of history running through the button of the present. What kind of story can be patched together in a language whose grammar has no future tense? What comes out is always some kind of elegy, some kind of legend, a sort of circular narrative that has to return to the past because not only the future but also the present fills it with trepidation. Here the past is never at fault, it's always in absolution. Old Kuznetsov may well have been right when he spoke of innocence. Guilt is borne only by those who believe that their deeds will in some way continue to exist in the future. Memory and the image of fate as an inevitability protect us from the cold touch of solitude. When all's said and done, it's only that which has passed truly exists, and at least partially corroborates our uncertain Central European existence.

And this does give a non-European reader insight into an inherent question of "Where do I belong?" instead of "Do I belong?". I liked so many of Stasiuk's perceptions of what he sees as he travels from Ukraine to Albania. These are not insights of country soul tasting big-city life, but considerations of someone who wants to know the people around him, and how history has treated countries he visits.
Just read how he perfectly and honestly characterizes Romania:

That's Romania: gilded plafonds and moldings and a broken toilet Romania is a land of marvels. I've been there maybe a dozen times and I still haven't had enough. Romania is a fairy tale. Past, present and future coexist there, and decay walks arm and arm with growth. The new is very much on the way, but the old survives equally well.

This is what you and I can't experience as a tourist per se. We can notice that like many places it has old and modern architecture yet we do not understand the essence of 'a Romania' in context to history - that each of these countries is trying to live up to its own expectations, to become an adult so-to-speak. Stasiuk himself lives in the Polish area of Carpathian Mountains which stretch from the Czech Republic over Poland, Slovakia, Hungary, Ukraine, Romania to Serbia. Because of this terrain that hovers thousands of feet in the air, the boundaries of national fade:

Though in fact, to live in the Carpathians is to remember that citizenship or nationality were always of little importance here. At times, in my extravagant cosmopolitan dreams, I see the main ridge of the mountains. I leave my home and head east, then south, and I don't encounter any borders. On the way there are only flocks of sheep, shelters, sheepdogs--and in the winter even those things aren't there. Across the ridge, along the deep valleys, there are several rail lines and several roads linking different countries. Both the roads and the tracks look like a prank, like extraterritorial corridors leading to the other side of the mountains. The noisy, restless flow of modernity passes through them, but the mountains themselves remain undisturbed.

Not only does Stasiuk gives us first hand accounts of travels through Eastern Europe but there are poignant and nostalgic essays about memory, adolescence, grandparents and even a prison stint. Fado refers to a type of song - a Portuguese mourning song. Stasiuk's Fado is a song without the music, mourning the loss of what was or isn't or won't be. A writer with the nomadic mind of a gypsy holds up a a gargantuan mirror to reflect the image of Eastern Europe to the rest of the world, it's difficult not to gaze at it. Like when we see our own reflection and notice the wrinkles and changes in our face as we age, Stasiuk hides nothing. He gives us a true dispatch from Eastern Europe with the heart of a bohemian:

That's right, best of all is night in a foreign country on the highway, because at those times foreignness extends across the entire earth and sweeps everyone up indiscriminately in its flow. Somewhere on the horizon are the fires of human settlements, indistinguishable from the distant glimmer of the stars. Oh, the flickering artery of nothingness, oh, the recollection of the ancient times when were homeless in the world, when space was terrifying in its immensity. Now it irks us with its elusivenss.

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