Andrzej Stasiuk, photo: Kamil Gubała
Writer, poet, and literary critic. Born in Warsaw in 1960. Winner of the 2005 Nike Prize for literature.
Stasiuk has had one of the most spectacular careers of his time. He was expelled from secondary school and worked odd jobs before becoming a writer and going on to win numerous prizes, including the 1995 Kościelski Prize. His uncommon biography takes him from getting involved in the pacifist movement in the early 1980s, deserting the army, and spending a year and a half in prison. With little tolerance for literary salons and officialdom, he moved from Warsaw to a house in the province, from which he would mail his texts to his editors at both mainstream dailies like Gazeta Wyborcza and "underground" magazines.
He has been called one of the leading lights of contemporary Polish literature. His work - primarily prose fiction and essays - examines the realities of life in Poland after 1989 while articulating a uniquely Central European perspective on the world, one marked by its ambivalent position between Western Europe and the periphery. He is the author of over 15 books of fiction, essays, and travel writing, including, in English: Fado (Dalkey Archive 2009), Nine (Harcourt 2007), Tales of Galicia (Twisted Spoon 2005), The White Raven (Serpent's Tail 2001) and On the Road to Babadag (Harcourt Brace US, Harvill Secker UK 2011). Irvine Welsh of The New York Times called Stasiuk "an accomplished stylist with an eye for the telling detail that brings characters and situations to life. . . . I caught a flavor of Hamsun, Sartre, Genet and Kafka in Stasiuk’s scalpel-like but evocative writing".
His first collection of stories The Walls of Hebron (1992) contained descriptions of his prison experiences: images from life in a cell and a record of a naked, dehumanized existence in a world ruled by force and cunning. Shocking accounts of humiliation and brutality combined with a pathos bordering on the lyrical, with sarcasm, artfulness, linguistic refinement and a flair for poetic shortcuts - this is Stasiuk's prose. His next books reinforced his reputation. Galician Tales, 1994, presents semi-fictionalized, semi-journalistic accounts of the lives of the residents of a village in the provincial foothills, with keenly observed details of the manners and morals of the period of political transformation, clearly drawn characters, a plot straight out of a folk ballad, and a climate in which poetical lyricism coexists with brutality. The stories in Through the River (1996), are a continuation of similar narrations in a similar setting. Stasiuk's book Dukla (1997), has been nominated for the 1998 Nike Prize, and Winter... (2001) for the 2002 Nike Prize.
On the Road to Babadag won the 2005 Nike Award and was published in English in 2011 to glowing reviews. The book is a mysterious, journey through the other Europe. Stasiuk is not interested in museums or quaint villages and admits he is "drawn to decline and decay", which comes through in his writing, giving it a realistic, raw feeling. National Public Radio's Jess Crispin praised the book, remarking in her June 2011 review that it "stretches far beyond the confines of its genre. Its scope is massive, covering philosophy and history, literature and politics".
Andrzej Stasiuk - Profile of the author
He says that the beginnings of his writing came at a very pleasant time. Nobody applied any pressure on him, nobody wanted anything from him. Today, he does not even remember whether he associated literature at that time with money or with reality. It probably did not enter his head that he could busy himself with anything other than writing and living.
Listen, write, cut
He is regarded as one of the most important Polish writers of the middle generation. His books have been translated into many languages, including English, German, French, Hungarian, Dutch, Czech, Spanish, Russian, Swedish, Ukrainian and Italian. Stasiuk's plays are successfully performed in Germany. His Opowieści galicyjskie ["Galician tales"] was screened by Dariusz Jabłoński under the title Wino truskawkowe ["Strawberry wine"] (2008) and was very well received by the critics.
He once said that his literary manifesto was "Write, cross out, think, look, listen, write and cross out, cross out, cut..." He explains that for him "every book is a defeat, because it cannot describe or name the world as we would wish. That is why you begin the next one and the next" (Rzeczpospolita, 3 April 2003).
He is not particularly concerned about whether, as a writer, he has someone to speak to. As he states, he speaks to himself. He tells himself stories which he has not found anywhere else. He writes books which he himself would like to read. Except he doesn't read them because they bore him or because he no longer likes them. He discovers with surprise, however, that there can be found people who read them, as it were, on behalf of the author.
He made his debut with Mury Hebronu ["The walls of Hebron"], written in strong prose in which he described his prison experiences. For deserting from the army, he ended up in the military prison in Płoty, then in the penal establishment in Stargard Szczeciński. For refusing to undertake work, he spent a month in solitary confinement.
All in the details
When he found himself outside, a friend at whose house he had hidden after his desertion told him to write everything down. The book was ready in three weeks. It was published soon after 1989. Jerzy Pilch wrote an enthusiastic review in "bruLion" periodical. Stasiuk already knew by then that he wanted to become a writer. Looking for solitude and peace, he went south to Beskid Niski mountain region. In the village of Czarne, his friend had a Lemko cottage dating back to 1937. The budding prose-writer decided to settle there. In Zima [Winter], published in 2001, he wrote:
I have an obsession with things, events, trivial details, rhymes, I like to know what things are called and that is why I prefer poor neighbourhoods to rich ones, because in them things have real value and it is very likely that people might love them just a bit simply because they don't have anything else. They don't adore them but love them, and they don't even know about it.
In Beskid, Stasiuk earned his living as the caretaker of an Orthodox church. He showed tourists around and replaced the windows blown out by the wind. In the end, conservators dismantled the church and transferred it to the open-air museum in Nowy Sącz. He wrote about all of this in Opowieści galicyjskie. In Czarne he worked on The White Raven, a story about a group of friends who couldn't make sense of their lives and escaped to the mountains in search of perhaps their last adventure. Martin Pollack of Germany's Der Spiegel called the book "A singular story of friendship, failure and death, told breathlessly in the raw language of suburban Warsaw, but also in solicitously drawn, keenly piercing pictures".
He also spent several nights writing his excellent memoirs, full of self-irony, which he entitled Jak zostałem pisarzem. Próba autobiografii intelektualnej ["How I became a writer. An attempt at an intellectual autobiography"]. This book was not greeted enthusiastically by everyone. In one of his feature articles, Bronisław Maj [poet and literary critic] called Stasiuk "the Edek of Polish literature" [Edek: a character from Sławomir Mrożek's Tango]. Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz in turn wrote, "Stasiuk demolishes his own myth about a cool life history. Army, desertion, own goal, prison? - how predictable. But - the less interesting the things he describes, the more I chortled when I was reading this book. Stasiuk the banalist!"
To travel is to live
For the Czarne Publishing House the author completed Dukla, which he considers to be his best work next to the novel Dziewięć / Nine, which is devoted to Warsaw. Dziewięć is a tale about a minor businessman embroiled in a gangster story and Stasiuk's American publisher described it as "an existential criminal novel". An excellent review of the book appeared in the prestigious books supplement to The New York Times Books Review. Some Polish reviewers, however, stated that Dziewięć testified to the author's creative crisis. The author addressed the critics, ""My God, if I were to listen to everyone's voice, I would never have written half of what I wrote and I would have written the other half terribly. In fact, none of these voices interest me much. 'Dziewięć' is my best book and I hope everybody has such a crisis in which I am supposed to be wallowing. (from "Warszawa jest literacko wygodna / Warsaw is literarily comfortable" in City Magazine, March 2000).
He always loved to travel. In his younger days, he would hitch-hike from one end of Poland to the other. He would thumb down a lorry, jump into the back and observe the landscapes from beneath the tarpaulin. After moving to Beskid, the destination for his journeys was at first Dukla, a small town in the Krosno poviat with a palace and park complex, a church, a Bernardine monastery and the ruins of a synagogue. Later, Stasiuk starting travelling around Slovakia, crossing the border at the crossing point in Konieczna nearby.
He would comopare how his mind was working in various conditions. After his first journey south, he thought that he would like to return there. And he did return, whenever the opportunity arose.
In Paris or Venice there is no longer any room for legends, for dragons or griffins, I am not able to think up anything interesting on the subject of those places. It grieves me but I do not feel any melancholy or human loss in a German town - I can only feel those things in a Transylvanian town, because there the feelings are clearer and more beautiful.
- from "Ja, kundel" / "I, a mongrel", Rzeczpospolita", 4 August 2007
He regards travelling as an experiment conducted on himself and also as a pleasure. He repeats after Andersen that "to travel means to live. In any case, doubly, triply, many times over".
Once it was believed that time spent in church was not time from real life because people do not age by that much time. This belief still exists in the countryside, which is why you see so many old women in churches who are trying to put off their time of dying by remaining in a holy place. Stasiuk suspects that perhaps the lay response to this is travelling, where the laws of everyday life cease to function. A traveller is not fully an inhabitant, a citizen, a member of a community. Perhaps he is not even fully a human being.
All the mornings in the world
Despite everything, the author regards himself as a home bird and emphasises that three weeks away from home is for him a dreadful effort. Together with his wife, Monika Sznajderman, and daughter Antonina, he now lives in Wołowiec, where he managed to acquire eighteen hectares of meadowland for a bargain price. Part of the materials needed to build the house were paid for from the money from the Kościelski Prize, which he received in 1995. The walls of his studio are adorned with maps - from the time of the Habsburg monarchy and later, including a German atlas from the time of the Second World War. He collects Central European coins, bar bills, tickets for Hungarian ferries. From the time that everybody started taking photographs, only such trifles preserve memory.
From his travels to Ukraine, Romania and Hungary, i.e. the part of Europe which many regard as "worse", there evolved the book which, in 2005, won the prestigious Nike award - a travel account entitled Jadąc do Babadag ["Going to Babadag"]. Stasiuk begins his description of reality from trifles: banknotes, cigarettes. He thinks that you have to start from what affects people the most, from experiences that have accompanied them all through their lives. Fragments of the book had appeared in the press earlier. The literarily excellent account of the morning in Tokaj was published in "Plus Minus", the weekend supplement to "Rzeczpospolita".
I awoke early in the morning and went out onto the balcony. The red roofs had darkened from the night-time rain. The cobblestones on the street had a light sheen and were steaming. In the whole town there was total silence. You could even hear the raindrops falling from leaf to leaf in the garden. Only the storks were making a noise. One after another they flew in from above the Cisa and landed on their chimneys. I counted about five nests. They were clattering and the echo resounded. They then preened their feathers and returned to the river, somewhere among the old poplars. Tokaj lay motionless and shone like fish-scales. I stood in this supernatural silence, smoked my cigarette and thought that this is what all the mornings in the world should look like: we wake in total silence, in a deserted foreign town where time has stood still and everything around looks like just a further part of sleep. Before the gates of the pastel houses, disturbed by the wind, hung the wrought-iron signs 'Zimmer frei... Zimmer frei... Zimmer frei...'. In the east, the violet eyelid of the clouds rose ponderously, let in a few beams and fell again. It was so beautiful that I wondered if I hadn't died by some chance.
- from "Plus Minus", 5 August 2000
One will not find any equally nostalgic words in Dojczland, the prose work published in 2007. Well, perhaps apart from the opening of the book in which the author describes the suburbs of Frankfurt am Main: "enormous, threatening and beautiful like a Babylonian allegory". Stasiuk writes about a country to which he travels as a literary gastarbeiter. During his author's evenings, he feels like a Gypsy musician who makes the time more pleasant for the locals at the station then takes his earnings and disappears. Stasiuk composes the image of contemporary Germany from memories, remarks, remembered images. Here, mockery is mixed with serious reflection. The author writes about a place which to a Pole brings a fairy tale to mind but also about a place where family memories full of terror are revived.
Chicken thieves versus forest arsonists
Apart from prose and poetry (the volume Wiersze miłosne i nie / Love Poems and Not in 1994), he has also written four plays. In 1998, he published Dwie sztuki (telewizyjne) o śmierci / Two (television) plays about death. Real renown only came, however, with Noc, czyli słowiańsko-germańska tragifarsa medyczna / Night, or A Slavonic-German medical tragic farce in 2005, in which he mocked the stereotypes weighing down mutual relations. At the beginning, a chorus of old women from the country tells a story about boys who take a heavy car and drive it into a shop through the display window. Stasiuk's protagonist steals valuables in Germany and smuggles them across the border. In the end, luck turns its back on him. The robbed jeweller pulls out a gun and shoots the thief dead. The author recalls a story from the time of the war that he heard in childhood about Russian chicken thieves and German murderers, who, "in order to go into a forest, had first of all to burn it down".
The second play about our relations with Germany is Ciemny las / The Dark Forest. This time, Stasiuk mocked economic tourism and our cheap dreams. He also presented a vision of the extermination of the "better" Europe. With the eyes of his imagination he saw the Germans living to be a hundred and ten years old. This longevity was guaranteed by the livers and the pancreases bought from the Chinese and coming from unknown sources. In these conditions, septuagenarians with the mentality of teenagers with great glee devote themselves to games on consoles and they consume metre-long lines of cocaine, which is apparently no longer harmful. The Europeans from the rich world led carefree lives because all the unpleasant work was done by volunteers from the East. They flew in with cheap airlines. On board the planes, they behaved as if on a suburban train. The Slavs working on felling the titular dark forest could not wait to take the places of the last elderly Germans. They even knew who would take their places at work: in the forest clearings: the Chinese had already been spotted.
The author also provokes us in Czekając na Turka / Waiting for a Turk, a play written to mark the twentieth anniversary of the fall of Communism in Poland and in the countries of the former Eastern bloc. Here, he alludes to Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot and to Sławomir Mrożek's Tango. He presents the history of people who do not want progress and for this reason feel excluded. The action takes place in a forest through which the state boundary ran. At night, the locals used to smuggle in goods from Czechoslovakia. Now, the Chorus of Former Smugglers, and the former Border Guard, Edek, are left with just memories. The buildings of the old guard-house are now looked after by a frightened security guard, Patryk, who is being paid by the new owner of the land, a Turk whom nobody knows. Edek and the Smugglers await his coming with trepidation while Patryk and Marika, a Slovakian shopkeeper and the local beauty, with hope for change.
Stasiuk derides political correctness. He reminds us that the revolution that has taken place over the last years has not made everyone happy. The people disenchanted with a Europe without frontiers are represented by Edek. He shouts his complaints about the world to Patryk, "And where is it said that changes have to be for the better? Maybe someone doesn't want any changes? Can someone not want them? I'm asking you, young man, you who are so much in favour of freedom?"
In 2009 he published Taksim, a story of a contemporary knight errant caught in the vise of capitalism, who has ambitions of overtaking Europe with an onslaught of conterfeit goods. Critic Przemysław Czapliński wrote of Stasiuk's disposable culture, stating that
If someone has the impression that Stasiuk has created a contemporary version of the story of how “the yellow race overcomes the white race,” they will only partly be right. Stasiuk is less interested in portraying the victors in this capitalist duel of deceptions, more in showing us the losers – that is to say, the pariahs of Europe, inhabitants of its poorest regions, people condemned to a worse life because they live in a worse place. These people acquire the cheapest goods, but they themselves, especially the women, are also turned into merchandise. The only thing Western Europe exports to Central Europe is its trash, its used objects, the detritus of its development, while from there it imports male bodies for its harsher jobs and female bodies for its entertainment. In this way the strength of money and the weakness of the provinces cause the ideal of Europe to enter liquidation. And since history driven by money has no brakes, it is a liquidation that cannot be reversed.
In 2010 he published Diary Kept Afterwards, which was among the finalists for the 2011 Nike Literary Prize. The book is an account of Stasiuk’s journeys to Albania, Serbia, Montenegro and Bosnia. More than a travel book, this collection of essays is intended to gain some perspective on his own country and on Polishness.
Together with his wife, Stasiuk runs the Czarne publishing house, specialising in contemporary Polish and Central European prose. They have published books by such authors as Jurij Andruchowycz, Adam Bodor, Martin Pollack, Paweł Smoleński, Mariusz Szczygieł and Jachym Topol. With Andruchowycz, Stasiuk wrote a book entitled Moja Europa. Dwa eseje o Europie zwanej Środkową / My Europe. Two essays on so-called Central Europe. He has also become a literary protagonist. In the volume of poetry entitled Piosenki dla martwego kota / Songs for a dead cat (translated by Bohdan Zadura), Andruchowycz included the poem More than a cult. He wrote:
Stasiuk sees everything.
The organ of his love - is visual memory.
The organ of his breath - is a packet of cigarettes.
The organ of his writing - is a dilapidated typewriter.
Because it is dilapidated, he writes by hand.
So, "on the spot", from himself, from me, from you.
So he is one of us, although, maybe, the best.
His writing is authentic, this is called character.
From something like that, you get to know a writer or a serial killer.
So, you will never catch him cheating.
Author: Bartosz Marzec, June 2009. Introduction courtesy of Source: www.polska2000.pl, Copyright: Stowarzyszenie Willa Decjusza, 2003. Translated by Tadeusz Z. Wolański
- Mury Hebronu / The Walls of Hebron (stories), Wydawnictwo Głodnych Duchów, 1992
- Wiersze miłosne i nie / Verses (Non-)Amorous, Poznań: Biblioteka Czasu Kultury, 1994
- Biały kruk / The White Raven (novel), Poznań: Biblioteka Czasu Kultury, 1995
- Opowieści galicyjskie / Galician Tales (stories), Cracow: Znak, 1995
- Przez rzekę / Through the River (stories), Gladyszow, Czarne, 1996
- Dukla (stories), Gładyszów, Czarne, 1997
- Dwie sztuki (telewizyjne) o śmierci /Two television plays about Death, Gladyszów: Czarne, 1998
- Jak zostałem pisarzem (próba biografii intelektualnej) / How I became a Writer (Attempt at an Intellectiual Biography), Gladyszów: Czarne, 1998
- Dziewięć / Nine, Gladyszów: Czarne, 1998
- Moja Europa. Dwa eseje o Europie zwanej środkową / My Europe. Two Essays on the Place Called Central Europe(with J. Andruchowicz), Wołowiec: Czarne 2000
- Tekturowy samolot / The Cardboard Aeroplane, Wołowiec: Czarne, 2000 (more...)
- Opowieści wigilijne / Christmas Tales (with Olga Tokarczukand Jerzy Pilch), Czarna Ruta, 2000
- Zima i inne opowiadania / Winter and Other Stories, Wołowiec: Czarne 2001 (more...)
- Jadąc do Babadag, Wołowiec: Czarne 2004
- Noc czyli słowiańsko-germańska tragifarsa medyczna, Wołowiec: Czarne 2005
- Fado, Wydawnictwo Czarne, Wołowiec 2006
- Ciemny las, Wołowiec: Czarne, 2007
- Dojczland, Wołowiec: Czarne, 2007
- Czekając na Turka, Wołowiec: Czarne, 2009
- Taksim, Wołowiec: Czarne, 2009
- Diary Kept Afterwards, Wołowiec: Czarne, 2010
- German: Der weiße Rabe / Bialy kruk, Berlin: Rowohlt, 1997; Wiersze milosne i nie, Rospo-Verlag, 1999; Dukla / Die Welt hinter Dukla, Frankfurt: Suhrkamp, 2000
- Finnish: Valkoinen korppi / Bialy kruk, Helsinki: Taifuuni, 1998
- Dutch: De witte raaf / Bialy kruk, Breda: De Geus, 1998
- Italian: Corvo Bianco / Biały kruk, Milano: Bompiani 2002; (under preparation: Dziewięć 2003, Dukla 2004)