In 1846, when Jacub Szela first ascended as a Polish leader, he guided a ragtag mob of peasants and serfs in a fight against their landowners and gentry. Szela had been anointed "king of the peasants" for 24 hours by the ruling Austrian empire, and in that time he raised an army, running into taverns with the cry, "Get to work, boys, and hurry, for time passes." Those men would slaughter almost 1,000 noblemen in their quest for economic freedom. Szela and his followers came to a bad end (as uprisings of these sort tend to do). More than a century and a half later, writer Andrzej Stasiuk now sits in a dusty co-op on Szela's old stomping grounds in Vicsani — which are once again filled with the poor and powerless drinking their vodka and pear brandy — imagining the second-coming of the rebel leader. The land here may still be full of the poor and oppressed, but missing now are the oppressors to direct their fury against. Stasiuk, a Pole himself, addresses this frustration to his dead countryman: "There's no one for you to go after... The most you could do is go to Suceava and like a postindustrial Luddite smash a sky-blue ATM."
With On the Road to Babadag: Travels in the Other Europe, Stasiuk has ostensibly written a travel book, but calling it that would be a diminishment. Sure, there are the requisite passages about lush landscapes, anecdotes about unusual people met along the way, accounts of the generosity of strangers and miscommunications on trains and buses. Yet the book stretches far beyond the confines of its genre. Its scope is massive, covering philosophy and history, literature and politics. It's more along the lines of Black Lamb and Grey Falcon, Rebecca West's epic travelogue of the post-WWI Balkans, than anything you'd want to file next to Bill Bryson.
The "other Europe" of the subtitle is the region beyond the more postcard-ready sights of Paris, Stonehenge or the beaches of Spain. Stasiuk ruminates on the forgotten corners and cubbyholes of Europe, from small villages in Hungary and Romania to parcels of land off Moldova newly impacted by the first stirrings of sovereignty, where he can't even get his passport stamped because no other nation would recognize as legitimate the seal. He comes across a map of Europe, its Western countries clearly demarcated, its capitals noted with stars. "But to the east and south of Prague and Budapest lay a terra incognita: countries without capitals," he writes. "Some countries [aren't] even there. No Slovakia. Moldova, Ukraine and Belarus all evaporated in the dried-up sea of old empire." Likewise, the people of these nations have been largely forgotten. Many of the farmers and the habitues of bars express nostalgia for communist and long-dead tyrants, as democracy and capitalism have done nothing to improve their lives.
Not that it's all gloom. On the Road to Babadag has great humor and a wonderful loopiness. Stasiuk shows what life is like when the stakes are so low the rest of the world regularly overlooks you. And as for that thoroughly trodden area west of here? He has little interest in exploring what everyone else has already seen. "Observation," Stasiuk notes, "irons out objects and landscapes. Destruction and decline follow. The world gets used up, like an old abraded map, from being seen too much." He prefers the previously overlooked world, and he witnesses it with wise eyes and an immense curiosity.