Historian and journalist Ziemowit Szczerek researches the particularities of Eastern and Central Europe. He describes these in his gonzo novel Mordor Will Come and Eat Us (2013), and in The Triumphant Republic, an alternative Polish history from the Second World War to the present day.
Historian and journalist Ziemowit Szczerek researches particularities of Eastern and Central Europe.
Ziemowit Szczerek specializes in Central and Eastern Europe – a topic so broad and indefinable that it is difficult to exhaust. Szczerek nevertheless endeavors to do so, as a journalist for Interia.pl in articles for a section appropriately titled Middle-East and as a researcher (a political scientist, he is writing his PhD in sociology). He recently published an alternative view of Polish history. He is also the author of extraordinary reportage worka from Ukraine, Mordor Will Come and Eat Us and Tatoo with a Tryzub, and also a novel – this time set in Poland – Seven.
When I first came to Ukraine, I immediately associated it with my childhood and holidays in the countryside. Everything was mysterious, like grandma's attic. The warped colors, gestures and voices – everything amped up to the max.
Mordor Will Come and Eat Us, or A Secret History of Slavs is an account of the author's travels in Ukraine over the last 20 years. Those expecting a faithful account of encounters with people, however – a record of what was said with appropriate narrative commenting, in short traditional elements of reportage from which one would gain a coherent vision of contemporary Ukraine – will be sorely disappointed. Szczerek's account is filled with first-person subjective impressions, descriptions of weird adventures and drug-induced visions, so much so that it becomes unclear where the high ends and where Ukraine begins. No wonder the book is considered the first Polish gonzo report, a style of journalism that was never popular in Poland. Szczerek's reportage contains those elements in similar proportions, as the author consciously reaches for countercultural patterns:
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Instead of Benzedrine, we had Vigor Balm (a type of herbal alcohol). Instead of rural USA and Mexico, we had Ukraine. Our goal was the same. We took our backpacks and hit the road. We didn't read Kerouac, because he was impossible to read. It was so full of pulsating and entangled guts. But also we felt stupid because, contrary to Kerouac, we had no real purpose. Kerouac and the others did do some kind of revolution, and we only ran like fucking hell through doors already open.
This fragment gives a great example of how Szczerek writes and of how his texts came to be. Before he wrote Mordor, his impressions were published on Interia.pl. In these, the author (writing under a pseudonym) explored the Polish need for Ukrainian hardcore. He wrote texts in which the lines between fiction and reality were blurred – it was this kind of Ukraine that readers wanted.
Szczerek hit the nail on the head. Ukrainian reality as depicted by Szczerek seems made for gonzo. However, the negative stereotypes about Ukraine (that hardcore East is East type of vibe) are readily contradicted in the book. Mordor is a total deconstruction of Polish attitudes towards Ukraine and Ukrainians, as well as towards the East itself – attitudes that try to preserve leftovers from romanticism or colonialism, all attitudes that stem from a historical sense of superiority and which now backlash in the form of resentments.
Something like that would probably not be possible in traditional forms of reportage. Thanks to gonzo, however, Szczerek can make stronger sociopolitical statements, for example, that Western Ukraine is the one place that most resembles Poland, distant and close at the same time – it's Poland, only with higher dosage of the East or, as the author puts it, "it's Poland; only it pisses you off more".
In Mordor, Szczerek demonstrates the unease of grasping the amorphous spatial designations we use for this territory. The "post-Soviet" space is traditionally associated with the East (subconsciously excluding Poland). It is a space where nothing resembles anything, or rather everything resembles nothing, where objects pretend to be their counterparts (mainly Western ones) rather than being themselves – and all of this is weird, seemingly unfinished as if deconstructed from the very beginning.
This is precisely what Szczerek emphasizes in his description of Zamarstyniv, a district in Lviv. He describes streets ("an incredible cocktail of rubble, dry mud and stones stubbornly pretending to be a sidewalk"), neighbourhoods ("bundles of wires hung like vines, heaps of rusting scrap and virtually everything else, lying around helter-skelter in the courtyards, all resembling something organic, something that would soon sprout branches") and all the other places and objects that, due to their unclear ontological character and function, cannot even be named. It's a reality in which, according to the protagonist of Mordor, "form and aesthetics have been discarded, as a useless fad..." Szczerek's descriptions are most of all humoristic, like his view of Drohobych:
The monstrous Soviet block took over the Galician hills like a conquering army. We took a long, boring road which led through Khrushchev-esque blocks. Among them was a little old orthodox church, the last remaining sign of what had been there before. The blocks loomed over it like a group of thugs over a victim about to be demolished.
In his clash with Ukrainian reality, Szczerek's protagonist retains a capacity for childlike amazement – this could partly be associated with the mind-altering substances consumed in large quantities by the characters, but also the reality which in itself seems to be hallucinogenic.
At the same time Szczerek, unlike others, knows how to coin poetical descriptions of towns and places – although in all likeliness no one will ever use them in a tourist guide. For example, his description of Bakhchysarai ("a jolly Slavic shibby put on top of the town’s oriental skeleton"), or the surroundings of Sevastopol ("It was Italy but Soviet, post-Soviet. It was Italy made up of settlements of poured concrete and breeze block. An alternative history in all its splendour").
In Ukraine, Szczerek moves around in a space and time in which many cultural and landscape layers are superimposed: the former Galicia (Halychyna, in Ukrainian) with Zakarpathia, Volyn, Podole, the steppe of middle Ukraine, the Cossak Zaporozhe, the Black Sea Odessa, the "Oriental" Tatar Crimea – and somewhere around it all (everywhere) the gaping abyss of Mordor. To be able to see these layers – covered with Communist-era blocks and now with turbo-capitalistic advertising – one needs to have a really sharp eye.
Szczerek's book also shows that East merges with its surroundings. To those interested in demarcation lines, we suggest reading the book – there they will find where Mordor begins.
He returned to Ukraine in 2015 with the book Tatoo with a Tryzub ("tryzub" means "trident" and it is the national coat of arms of Ukraine), which was nominated for the Nike award. The vision of Ukraine as a "theoretical country", which never had the chance to truly exist, where "everything looks as if there had been a nuclear holocaust" is reinforced by post-apocalyptic images taken out of Star Wars or Mad Max. These reportages are less fictionalized, pure non-fiction born out of a fascination with the chaos and weirdness of a place, where "apocalypse [...] already took place and now everything slowly, calmly deteriorated".
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East: The Beginning
For those who wonder where East begins, read Szczerek. Written with Marcin Kępa, The Pack of Radomskie is a collection of stories from his hometown, Radom, south of Warsaw:
Heaviness, crudeness, dirt, and here and there a spaceship from another planet: a gas station, exhaling the delicate perfume of violets, open and closed with a silent rustle, a popcorn-scented multiplex with cloud-soft carpets, a shopping center with H&Ms and mango shakes at McDonald's. And then you have to go out again and see those signboards painted with miscellaneous shit, [a truly delightful adaptation of a Mickiewicz line which translation does not render – editor’s note] to see this Polish attempt at adapting to its surroundings; time to admit that the attempt is unsuccessful.
Obviously, the author's writings also fulfil the function of social diagnosis. It touches upon eternal problems of Polish identity, national complexes and their territorial symptoms. Writing about Radom, Szczerek notices that at a deeper level, it does not differ much from Warsaw. To those who wish to know where Radom ends and where Warsaw (the Radom of Europe) begins, we suggest reading the text 'Radom Against Poland'. Essentially, Radom never ends.
The books of Szczerek show that East as we know it does not have clearly defined borders. As he puts it in an interview for the publisher Ha!Art: "The physical borders of countries are only the outside layout. Life throbs underneath".
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Poland: A Superpower?
If Mordor was mostly about the Eastern European space – and what happens in it – then the political fiction The Triumphant Republic is concerned with the concept of time. By writing an alternative history for Poland in which the Republic wins the war and becomes a superpower, Szczerek again dealt with Polish complexes and national identity.
The myth of powerful Poland – alongside with the myths of noble Poland and tolerant Poland – is probably one of the strongest elements in historical narratives and, unlike the others mentioned, actually influences Polish politics and self-perception. Szczerek asks: what if these dreams and fantasies became real? And he answers that such a powerful Poland would soon become a threat not only to itself but also the world – and in the end that this imaginary Poland becomes surprisingly similar to the real one, with all its complexes and problems.
This mental experiment of alternative history (done remarkably well, we may add, with scientific tools and with the whole construction based on historical realities) ends up painting a caricature of Poland. But this caricature appeals to Poles, and they dream of this imagined yet powerful Poland. Thus Szczerek's caricature becomes catharsis.
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In 2015 his novel Seven was published. Its main protagonist is the famous E7 road from Kraków to Warsaw, which passes through cities such as Kielce and Radom. As he writes:
The seven, the seven, the queen of Polish roads, Poland's spine [...]. this Poland, the Poland, this project, [...] reality around the Seven sets the tone for the rest of the country [...].
The narrator, an admirer of Central-Eastern Europe, an editor of a web journal – basically the ironic alter ego of the author – goes on a trip from Kraków to "the centre of the world", meaning the capital. With each passing kilometre, he's closer to the Polish hell: an almost realistic gallery of protagonists and places (a huge, grey void, "Polish ugliness", architectural nightmares, ruined towns, Sarmatian names) are mixed with post-apocalyptic visions of the main protagonist, taken from The Witcher. During his infinite journey to Warsaw the Russian army enters Poland, bombs start falling down, people are killed all around. Wojciech Orlinski wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza:
Szczerek references Heart of Darkness, not the original version by Conrad, but Francis Ford Coppola's film. The closer we are to colonel Kurtz's abode – Warsaw and Lordzisko hotel – the more macabre we find.
Published in 2018, Międzymorze (Intermarum) is Szczerek’s attempt at illustrating the lands between three seas: Baltic, Black and Adriatic. Left to the mercy of fate of empires, the peoples of Central Europe often differ, but they also share a lot. Szczerek is a brilliant photographer who managed to capture the fermenting crisis in the broad belt of countries risen from the ashes of the Eastern bloc. Maciej Robert wrote:
Międzymorze is a natural development of Szczerek’s previous books, but this time he encompassed a larger area of interest. This time it’s not just Poland and Ukraine – he writes about the area between the Baltic, Adriatic and Black Seas, a land of former communist states and Soviet satellite republics. Traversing the peripheric Europe, Szczerek investigates often using provocative questions ("Polityka", 23 May 2017).
People of the East
Published in 2018, Szczerek’s reportage Siwy Dym albo Pięć Cywilizowanych Plemion (Fracas or Five Civilised Tribes) is an invitation to join him in the journey through one of the least obvious cultural continents – Eastern Europe. It is the story of a Polish journalist, who travels through the futuristic Slavdom entangled in conflicts. The story of a Polish journalist, who travels through the futuristic Slavdom entangled in conflicts, approaches the Polish genre of szlachta storytelling even more vividly than his previous books.
Szczerek aims at creating a grim verso of the narratives, that the modern part of Eastern Europe is trying to create. Perhaps, it is simply an implicit revolt against the environment, that feeds Ziemowit Szczerek. But it is also proof that the flames of personal conflicts of top brass never harm literature. Quite the opposite.
Author: Mikołaj Gliński, 5/09/2013, updated by AP, July 2019.
- Paczka radomskich (A Pack of Radomskie) – short stories written with Marcin Kępa,illustrated by Mateusz Kamieński, Radom 2010,
- Przyjdzie Mordor i nas zje, czyli tajna historia Słowian (Mordor Will Come and Eat Us, or A Secret History of Slavs), Ha!Art, 2013,
- Rzeczpospolita zwycięska. Alternatywna historia Polski (The Triumphant Republic), Znak, 2013,
- Tatuaż z tryzubem (Tatoo with a Tryzub), Czarne, 2015,
- Siódemka (Seven), Korporacja Ha!Art, 2015,
- Międzymorze: podróże przez prawdziwą i wyobrażoną Europę Środkową (Intermarum. Jorneys through a real and an imagined Central Europe), Warszawa: Wydawnictwo Agora; Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2017,
- Siwy Dym: albo Pięć Cywilizowanych Plemion (Fracas or Five Civilised Tribes), Wołowiec: Wydawnictwo Czarne, 2018.
- Přijde Mordor a sežere nás, aneb, Tajná historie Slovanů (transl. by Michal Lebduška), Brno: Větrné mlýny, 2017.
- Mordor kommt und frisst uns auf: Roman (transl. by Thomas Weiler), Dresden: Voland & Quist, 2017,
- Sieben Das Buch der polnischen Dämonen (transl. by Thomas Weiler), Berlin: Verlag Voland & Quist 2019.
- Jön Mordor és felfal minket, avagy a szlávok titkos története (transl. by Gábor Körner), Budapest: Typotex 2016.
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- Pryide Mordor i nas z'ïstʹ, abo Temna istorii︠a︡ slov'i︠a︡n (transl. by Andriĭ Bondar), Kyïv: Tempora, 2014.