The Polish novelist and essayist Andrzej Stasiuk owns a century-old travel map of Austro-Hungary. Aside from its fragility, he writes, its most notable feature is its level of detail: “[E]very village of half a dozen cottages, every godforsaken backwater where the train stops—even only the slow train, even only once a week—all those places are marked and labeled, all are preserved and their names can be read with a magnifying glass, just as if you were reading the past itself, or discovering the origins of a legend.”
Throughout this captivating collection of essays, Stasiuk does much the same job of preservation for contemporary Central Europe—in particular, the region of the Carpathian Mountains of southern Poland where he lives, just over the border from Slovakia, and the surrounding countries within driving distance of his home. He visits a World War I military cemetery; he encounters Gypsies who have “survived the perils of extermination and the lure of assimilation”; and he provides pithy descriptions of the cultural traits of many other Central European national and ethnic groups in this region that he calls (borrowing the term from Hannah Arendt) the “zone of mixed populations.”
Fado is named for a style of Portuguese folk song noted for its melancholy. But while a melancholic tone occasionally creeps into Stasiuk’s prose, he is no wistful nostalgist. His clear-eyed observations of the present are every bit as engaging as his reclamations of the past. Here he is describing a gathering of youths in the main town of his home county:
You can hear shouts, curses, sometimes the sound of breaking glass. Occasionally a police car appears and for a moment there’s calm. Then the police drive off and the party starts up again. Someone throws up, someone cuddles someone else, someone goes into the store for another can of beer. Groups move from one car to another. It’s a little like a caravan encampment where cars play the roles of both horses and tents. From time to time someone drives off and a short while later returns. Because these young people have cars, but they don’t have anywhere to travel to in them. Or perhaps it just doesn’t occur to them that they could actually go somewhere.
As good as he is on such details, Stasiuk is equally at home in the realm of the analytical and the abstract. For example, contrasting the lives of Central and Eastern Europeans under communism with those of Western Europeans, he writes of the former:
[W]e practiced something that might be called pathological cosmopolitanism. We lived in our cities and countries in appearance only, because for us they were fictitious entities. They did not exist in and of themselves. Real life happened elsewhere, in the West. Our world was unreal. We had to make it so, because otherwise we would have had to despise it. Attempts to render our world more real resulted in sorry expeditions into an idealized past, or a hazy millenarianism that proclaimed the imminent arrival of a miraculous hybrid—the three-headed dragon of social equality, universal prosperity, and absolute freedom.
Stasiuk also takes occasional detours into the personal, including an essay on his daughter’s growth from childhood into adolescence and another on his own childhood trips to his grandparents’ farm (where, incidentally, tools and household utensils were used and repaired as long as humanly possible, so perhaps Stasiuk comes by his respect for remnants of the past genetically). And in a further departure, he gives us an essay on the importance of Pope John Paul II in the lives of his Polish compatriots, which contains a remarkable meditation on the Pope’s impending death:
In this idiotic world where old age has become outlawed, where sickness and weakness border on the criminal, where anyone who lacks the strength to produce and consume becomes an outcast, where failure and destitution are acceptable only in television reports from distant lands, he had the courage to die with millions watching; he had the courage to show us his wasted body, his face constricted with suffering, his dragging feet, his death throes. This was his last lesson, at a time when he could no longer speak.
The overarching subject of Fado is the encroachment of the present upon the past, and the past’s mighty struggle to hold its own in the face of the modernizing forces that threaten to obliterate it. And yet, despite—or perhaps in keeping with—his loving acts of preservation, Stasiuk voices pessimism about the ability of past ways of life to survive:
Perhaps this is what the future will look like. Our homelands, our countries, will vanish, as mental or cultural points of reference. Poland will disappear, Italy will disappear, France will disappear. Why not? More and more things are disappearing and more and more new ones are emerging in their stead. What will remain is Fiat, Coca-Cola, Microsoft, Nike, and Johnny Walker. Then Fiat and Ford will disappear too, even Nokia will disappear, and their more perfect future incarnations will arrive, to which we will pray in turn for consolation and hope.
It’s entirely likely that in such a way the West will finally join with the East. The homelessness of all the mental emigrants will in the end become our common home.
Even if so, this book is an important contribution to shoring up the fragments of Central Europe’s past against their eventual ruin.