Polish author Ziemowit Szczerek finds the heart and backbone of Poland along the S7 express highway from Kraków to Warsaw. In his new book, the strip of civilization that cropped up along this road over the years becomes the ultimate symbolic space of Poland
In Siódemka, Ziemowit Szczerek – known for his acclaimed gonzo account of his travels in Ukraine (Mordor Will Come and Eat Us) and an alternative history of Poland (Poland Victorious) - takes the reader on a journey along the “queen of Polish roads”, through the landscape of incomparable ugliness that stretches behind the windows of a car traveling from Kraków to Warsaw.
This man-made landscape includes the most bizarre architecture with hotels, side-road bars and gas stations, little shabby towns with the strangest urban lay-outs. In the novel this ugliness is hardly bearable, and the characters must cope with it with the use of drugs and alcohol, which turns this voyage into a psychedelic trip where the ultimate goal is gaining the almost mystical understanding of what Poland really is.
Along this metaphysical road to perception Szczerek also asks more mundane questions, like what is so different about this Polish space? And should we be embarrassed about it?
Like the roads in the US, Polish roads also have their mythology - namely that of being almost eternally in the process of construction (earlier it was their legendary low quality). But this has been changing. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, the Polish system of highways and express roads has been developed intensively and will be fully completed by 2020.
From all Polish roads the "7" may be the most famous and notorious. It's like the Polish version of Route 66 with its own history and myth.
Siódemka was always a Polish place, even when Poland wasn’t on the map, Szczerek said in an interview alluding both to the central geographical position of the road on the map of today’s Poland and its history.
In fact the road to Polish independence starts on Siódemka: In August 1914 it was along its path that the forces led by Józef Piłsudski marched from Kraków towards the Russian-Austrian border, initiating the national effort that materialized with the independence of Poland four years later.
But unlike Route 66, visually immortalized through iconic images that have become symbols of America, and despite its key position on the map connecting the old and new capital, South and North, Siódemka is primarily noted for its embarrassing ugliness.
However, as Szczerek suggests, the landscape of Siódemka is the real and ultimate Poland: Siódemka may be aesthetically and otherwise peripheral, but it is the real center of Poland, which, as he writes, makes everywhere else periphery. In fact, this controversial approach may also work as a tool of subverting the way Poles feel about their space.
Poland: A Place Without Shape?
In Siódemka we're following the adventures of Paweł, making his way across the country from Kraków to Warsaw in an attempt to make it on time for 'an important meeting' scheduled for the next day. However the hallucinatory nature of this trip will guarantee many detours taking us through the roads, backroads and Polish wasteland along S7, and offering many surreal episodes. One of them features a quasi-guerilla troop made up of young urban hipsters who travel around Poland dispatching terrorist attacks on buildings that they consider ugly. These aesthetic terrorists are keen readers of Filip Springer’s book Wanna z kolumnadą – a real book and bitter critique of Polish aesthetic tastes in architecture and public space.
The protagonists of Szczerek’s novel cannot decide whether Siódemka constitutes a landscape of devastation or the embodiment of utter chaos. But chaos is also destruction, remarks one of them.
A German tourist, one of the marginal figures in the book, makes another poignant observation:
Here, there’s economic progress and the collapse of civilization all at once. That’s why this country is so fascinating. It’s like a post-apocalypse, like in Mad Max.
Time and again, Poland is described as the place without shape.
Nothing has a shape here. Here it’s chaos. Satan. Once this city had a shape, and now it’s chaos. It’s impossible to live in chaos. Constantly pissed off.
This lack of shape becomes a key element of the Szczerek's definition of Poland. In fact, this chaos is the shape of Poland (more precisely, the equation is: Poland = chaos + being pissed off). Siódemka seems like failed attempt to domesticate this original chaos
A different approach on the topic is taken by another character in the book Abdel, who runs a Kebab bar in one of the shabby towns along E7. According to abdel, rather than criticize, one should rather start enjoying this new shape of Poland. 'I like this chaos because it reminds me of the States in the seventies' Abdel says. And goes on to conclude, that only when driving a car in Siódemka does he begin to feel like Kowalski - that is Kowalski from The Vanishing Point.
Should we then, like Abdel, stop worrying and start loving the S7?
Does Public Space in Poland Exist?
This is also the position that Szczerek seems to be taking. Rather than criticizing this Polish mish-mash, Szczerek uses it as a means to interpret the Polish identity and history - and in the end manages to accept it as expression of Polish culture.
The end of the book works as a fine epitaph and a memento of this world: It may be ugly but it’s ours and it feels like home, no matter how annoying. Szczerek seems to be saying that the average Pole's approach to Poland is deeply rooted in shame.
In an interview, he suggested that rather than being embarrassed about this Polish space, and making efforts to hide it and dodge it, which only mimicks the real effort of modernization, one should maybe start taking advantage of it, consciously build on it, and turn it into Polish trademark.
Every country creates icons out of its public space, Szczerek remarks. Americans keep on showing off their roadside diners, those boring suburbs, those New York fire escapes. Shouldn't Poland do the same?
The parallel with the American roadside landscape goes on to show that what was originally ugly became a trademark landscape - a sign of quality. Why not make the landscape of Siódemka Poland's trademark? - seems to be the conclusion of Szczerek's meditation on Polish space. Why not build on it, make it more sophisticated? If Poland’s trademark has to be the ubiquitous roadside signboards and advertising chaos, why not make them nice signboards and elaborate chaos?
Siódemka is definitely not Route 66, but maybe it could be more like the Las Vegas Strip.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, May 2015