The Land of the Post-Modern
The Pole Andrzej Stasiuk and the Ukrainian Juri Andruchowycz, both born in 1960, are two of the most read contemporary writers from Central and Eastern Europe. Their works have been translated into many languages and they have close contacts in the West, particularly Germany. At first glance, their success seems to rely on their ironic, self-critical to self-deprecating, perspective on the chaotic history and present of their native countries. However, on a deeper level, their texts map Central and Eastern Europe as an area that lays bare the ugly underbelly of post-industrial society and its cruel contradictions in general. In this sense, with their work, they point less to the region’s backwardness than to its particular character as the ultimate ‘land of the post-modern’. In other words, in their view, Central and Eastern Europe may provide a slightly distorted image, but it holds up a mirror to Europe and modern society as a whole.
An episode taken from Andrzej Stasiuk’s On the Road to Babadag, detailing the author’s travels through the Carpathian region, provides an ideal illustration of this point. In a most striking passage, stray dogs are described as carelessly crossing the border from northern Romania into Ukraine. A few decades ago, this was the former fortified border of the Soviet Union; today, it is the outer border of the European Union. Roaming for food or seeking shelter, the dogs do not care if they are here or there, blissfully unaware of the political implications of their movement. Humans, in contrast, are summoned to wait in long queues at the checkpoint and undergo a range of pointless custom checks. The dogs may be a typically Central European feature in this picture. But their freedom of movement highlights the arbitrariness and absurdity of the political division of space for the sake of administration, power and economic exploitation, which is by no means a feature specific to the region.
A few years ago, Stasiuk and Andruchowycz wrote a joint essay entitled Mein Europa (My Europe). This text constitutes a particularly interesting exercise in exploring the interplay of politics, geography and history. For one thing, it brings together the insights of these two intellectuals divided by the highly contested border between Poland and Ukraine. For another, however, it highlights how much they actually share. Both explore the predicament of Central Europe: a region scattered with traces and ruins (natural, industrial and cultural such as the Jewish cemeteries) (15); a region that highlights the dissonance between past and present as a result of genocide and ethnic cleansing; a region uncomfortably squeezed between Russia and the West (43).
Yet they also show that this landscape is not fundamentally different from the West. It has simply had more of everything: peoples, languages, cultures, but also wars and violent political experiments. For the authors, the question is not whether this is Europe or not; this is simply ‘their Europe’. Central Europe is perhaps less polished than western Europe but this only makes it more European. It is a section of the continent that reveals underlying structures, the internal mechanisms, the skeleton below the skin of Europe as a discursive realm of belonging.
In this space, nostalgia and utopia, dreams and nightmares are inseparable and history is still in the making. Stasiuk imagines the coat of arms of Central Europe, if there was one, as half empty – still open to interpretation: ‘a pretty coat of arms with somewhat unclear contours, that could be filled according to one’s own imagination’ (105).
Thinking of Central Europe leads to more questions. Andruchowytsch thus composes a short poem which asks: ‘should we free the future of the past? Should we free the past of the future?’ (24; repeated 73–74) He then explains that Westerners have been debating this at length and almost obsessively, differentiating between the cases of ‘lucky’ and ‘unlucky’ societies with different types of heritage. In the face of this, Andruchowytsch warns against ‘a past that prevents the future from coming about. A past that holds time in its claws. A past that functions as the dictate of prejudice.’ (34) With this, he seeks to contest the notion of a historical burden weighing on the region. Present, past and space are what you make of them – all a matter of construction and imagination.
This freedom to create is nevertheless conditioned and shaped by the political and economic climate; as anyone who has studied identity knows, you are who you want to be but also who others consider you to be; the group is determined by the boundary. Ultimately, for Stasiuk, the reality of Central Europe is embodied by his discovery of his own language and that of his neighbours on the packaging of his washing powder produced by a giant international corporation (114). For him, this amounts to a recognition of Central Europe’s existence – its presence on the map.
By mixing the trivial and the fundamental in this way, Stasiuk and Adruchowytsch draw our attention not only to the case of Central Europe in particular, but modern subjectivities in relation to space and history more widely. This is why their work has been described as a form of geopoetics – a poetic engagement with political geography – a poetic geopolitics. In the end, it is a post-modern critique of practices of territorialisation and regimes of citizenship, belonging and exclusion that create the conditions of contemporary existence. Central and Eastern Europe, with its problems of definition, is particularly well-suited to this purpose. But in the end, it is only an example – one of many lands of the post-modern.