There are 167 stamps on Andrzej Stasiuk's passport. Or, at least, there were so many when this book was published. Probably Mr Stasiuk hit 200 stamps in the meantime. And I would be glad if he did, for each of these stamps has a story to tell and the author of "On the Road to Babadag" is the right person to do that.
What you will find here is the perfect combination of the celebrated "Danube" by Claudio Magris with the Eastern Europe travels of "Michael Palin's Europe" recently televised by the BBC.
And yet, in Michael Palin's words, Stasiuk is "less fucking pompous" than the Italian writer, while Claudio Magris would find Babadag more "Hapsburg influenced and quintessentially Central-European" than the ex-Python's travelogues.
What Stasiuk managed to accomplish here is stunning. This book is an act of love for those wide lands between the Carpathian mountains and the Black Sea spanning over 5 official countries (Slovakia, Ukraine, Hungary, Romania, Moldova) a self-proclaimed one (Transnistria) and a Gypsy stateless but very evident community.
There are also a couple of detours, when Stasiuk drove through Slovenia and visited Albania but in both cases they seem linked to the road which leads to Babadag as to prove a common Eastern ground made of dilapidated bunkers, rented rooms, watermelons and beer for chasing liquor.
Stasiuk managed to map a land where melancholy and initiative, bribing and altruism, alcoholics and essayist come with hands clasped sometimes being the right and back of the same hand.
A land which is crisscrossed by solemn rivers, bumpy roads and where half-dismantled borders pop up in the corn fields. There where the likes of Emil Cioran and Danilo Kiš were born.
What the author seeks for are places where time is "just a piece of eternity you cut out for your own consumption". As Stasiuk puts it, the heart of his Europe doesn't beat in Vienna, or Budapest, or Krakow. And this heartbeat cannot be found even in Ljubljana, Chisinau or Bratislava, but it rather pulses in Husi, Sulina, Szolnok. Or Dukla. Or Babadag.
Only driving to and through this immemorial and yet vaguely known cut-out Europe avoiding any large town on his sight, Andrzej Stasiuk can find what he is looking for.
"On the Road to Babadag" is the written proof of a world that will always be torn apart and yet somehow cohesive, with ferries travelling back and forth the Danube banks or connecting Constanța with Istanbul. I went aboard and let the time flow. For my own delighted consumption.