Uptown Boy
photo: Kamil Gubała

Uptown Boy

BY Łukasz Saturczak

An icon? He’s the same guy he always was: deserter, star of the literary world, philosopher. Even the cuss he supposedly muttered upon hearing the verdict of the Nike Award jury might be treated as a part of some convention: Andrzej Stasiuk

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The year 2012 will mark the 20th anniversary of Andrzej Stasiuk’s literary debut (Walls of Hebron, 1992). From now on he’ll also be able to claim that he spent the majority of his life in the Low Beskids. And even though he left the capital in 1986 when he was only 26 years old, Warsaw still haunts his work, including Grochów, a collection of stories he recently published.

Standing on a balcony,
It’s a pity that all things must end
Partia, Warsaw and me

As a writer, he seems to have at least two faces. And right now some people are trying to add a third. Frankly, that’s not that many, considering that Stasiuk is over 50. The thing is, up to this point Stasiuk was able to effortlessly shed all of them. Every time somebody tried to pigeonhole him, he just smiled and muttered: “Give me a fucking break.” Will he manage to do it again?

On the road (the convict)

In Parnas Bis, a who’s-who of Polish literature, Paweł Dunin-Wąsowicz and Krzysztof Varga called Stasiuk “one of the few Polish writers with an impressively cool résumé”. They followed that description with a short bio about him prepared in 1991 by the literary magazine Brulion:

Andrzej “The Pig” Stasiuk. Graduated from elementary school. Expelled from high school, secondary technical school and vocational school. After a six-month stint in the army he was promoted to corporal and went AWOL immediately afterwards. Found guilty of desertion (Penal Code, Section 303, subd. 3) and incarcerated in the Płoty military prison. Removed for disrupting military discipline, he served out the rest of his sentence in a civilian facility.

Varga was incredulous: “He got thrown out of jail?!” It bears mentioning, however, that both the bio and Parnas Bis were written when Stasiuk was already quietly living in the Beskids. His Warsaw exploits were nearly legendary back then. Their status was so entrenched that when in 1998 Stasiuk published How I Became a Writer, his Warsaw memoirs, Dunin-Wąsowicz’s ironic blurb on the book’s cover said: “Stasiuk crushes the myth of his awe-inspiring résumé. The military, desertion, suicide attempt, prison? How predictable.” Meanwhile, the future editor-in-chief of Lampa described the writer’s life in Warsaw in an article published in the first ever issue of Machina magazine, because, as he mentioned at the beginning of Island of the Pig, “serious critics kept smothering Stasiuk with praise, constantly adulating his subtle prose. It all ended when he published How I Became a Writer. As it turns out, in the 80s Stasiuk was something of a bum.”

This past image of the writer is all but gone from the consciousness of the average consumer of literature. Life on the street, elementary education, dereliction of military duty, suicide attempt, incarceration – Stasiuk decided to wipe the record clean of all this supposedly on the day he and his friend climbed a crane standing next to the Marriott Hotel in Warsaw city centre, which back then was still under construction. When he saw the Warsaw Central train station the size of a pack of cigarettes, he decided to leave home and fulfill his greatest dreams. Near the end of his autobiography, Stasiuk writes:

I gazed at the city from above and knew that I wasn’t going anywhere. That’s when I thought that maybe I should leave and become some kind of writer. I left the next month.

Stasiuk talks about himself without reservations but he knows when to say “enough”, when certain limits of privacy are being crossed, he knows what you can share with journalists and readers, and what you absolutely cannot. That’s probably why Dunin-Wąsowicz didn’t contact Stasiuk himself when he wrote Island of the Pig, but instead approached Krosbi, Stasiuk’s best friend, pictured in both How I Became a Writer and Grochów (the latter was published after his death).

Galician spleen (the peasant)

It’s 1986 – Stasiuk packs his bags and leaves for the Low Beskids. He was considered “mad” ever since he arrived in the half-empty Lemko village of Czarne. What else can you call a man who leaves the capital city at the dawn of true capitalism and heads for the Southern wilderness? In his new house he used kerosene lamps and bred goats and llamas, the latter very incompatible with the local environs. All of his belonging were gifted to him by a friend who also decided to escape but headed for the US instead. Ten years later (in 1996) Stasiuk and Monika Sznajderman teamed up to establish a publishing house named after the village they both lived in – Czarne. A few years before that, Stasiuk debuted with Walls of Hebron and managed to establish himself as a writer. The critics called him a brutalist (after his debut), later adding labels such as a storyteller with poetic leanings (Tales of Galicia, Dukla), and a melancholic essayist (Driving to Babadag, Fado).

In interviews, Stasiuk will sometimes claim that he spent his entire life in rural areas, because he grew up outside Warsaw city limits. You can’t call a place that’s served by two buses a day and where cows roam the streets a “city”. Origins are also a very important factor.

– Do you consider yourself a peasant?
– Of course. I live in a small village and I’m proud of it. My parents are of rural extraction. The countryside is the true face of this country. Our middle-class bourgeoisie was a minority and our cities were built by Italians and Germans.
(excerpt from a Playboy interview)

But it’s not all that simple. His departure did not wipe his record. He left Warsaw for Czarne (ending up in Wołowiec, also in the Beskids), and took up llama breeding (they all died); he took care of a tiny Lemko Orthodox church (it fell apart) and he tried to write in peace, but the memories of his earlier life and Warsaw itself will appear in his books numerous times. He has mostly avoided Warsaw for 20 years, focusing instead on the Bieszczady Mountains (White Raven), the small towns of the Low Beskids or Subcarpathia (Dukla, Tales of Galicia), and the European periphery (Driving to Babadag, Taksim). But the young beatnik cruising the streets of Warsaw in his 10 USD off-brand jeans and drinking beer in shabby bars was still to make an appearance in his work.

Today, Stasiuk calls himself “a melancholic writing fictional reportages” (in the documentary Zawód – podróżnik na południe «Occupation: Southbound Traveler»). There’s a lot of truth in that statement. At first (and each subsequent) glance, Grochów  like White Raven and Dukla before it  has nothing in common with the now-legendary Walls of Hebron. As Jerzy Pilch rightly noticed:

Andrzej Stasiuk is a writer of such capability that he’s terribly interesting even when using naked facts. Because Stasiuk also happens to write non-fiction. His writing is best when he’s adding a “touch of metaphysical brilliance” to naked facts. (Brulion, 17/18, 1991)

This is a fragment of Pilch’s review of Walls of Hebron, not Driving to Babadag, and was written back in 1991! Did nobody except the author of Strong Angel Inn exhibit enough intuition and insight when reading Stasiuk’s debut writings? I highly doubt that. Pilch’s concise reflection confirms that even when writing his debut, Stasiuk clearly recognised where his interests lie and knew exactly where he wanted to go with his prose.

Filtered cigarettes (the celebrity)

When a photograph of Stasiuk smoking a filtered cigarette appeared on the cover of his book Through the River, Dariusz Nowacki accused the writer of distancing himself from the mythos surrounding his person (Parnas Bis). The retreat towards the Slovak border created another icon – of the loner writer – which only reinforced the image of tough guy writer.

– Is it true that poverty is good for the artist?
– Yes, it is, especially the young ones who never took a serious beating from life. Nothing makes me more fucking angry than young writers who never wrote anything but already have an agent, who in turn wants a load of cash for the pleasure of publishing the youngling’s scribbles. (...) The majority of people in the world know poverty first-hand. Hitting bottom is a part of a life truly lived. It’s tangible, unlike the experiences conjured up by people bored out of their minds. A true experience is something that falls upon us, something that is not created, it’s fate itself.
(excerpt from a Playboy interview)

But the outsider image was overshadowed by another construct – an acclaimed writer. In 1996 Stasiuk received the Kościelski Award for White Raven. The stories collected in Tales of Galicia was focused solely on describing life in a completely new place, and Dukla, published two years later, followed the same formula. In the meantime Stasiuk launched his Czarne publishing house. It seemed that The White Raven, itself a tale of escaping Warsaw (even though the protagonists eventually return to the capital) set a certain boundary, later reinforced by the infamous photo on the cover of Through the River. Nothing could be further from the truth. And it had nothing to do with style.

After getting over his infatuation with Galicia – its multicultural nature, its slow pace and bums drinking next to the local grocery store, the latter transformed into nearly mythical creatures in Stasiuk’s writing – the author returned to his old haunts. He wrote How I Become a Writer during two weeks in the fall of 1998. This attempt at writing – as the author himself called it – an intellectual autobiography begins and ends in Warsaw, just like his subsequent crime novel, Nine. The capital also makes an appearance in his latest book, Grochów. A small appearance, in comparison with the two books mentioned above, but one characterised by unceasing affection. And a healthy dose of local patriotism on the part of the author, who claimed during a TV interview that “Warsaw will never belong to transplants from the province.”

Grochów also contains a never-before-seen dose of melancholy. It is neither a sneering biography nor a clinical description of the concrete-ridden capital. The bums in Grochów do not resemble the swashbucklers from How I Became a Writer, even they are the same people. From this new perspective they look like the lazy drunks from Tales of Galicia with their glassy-eyed delivery of philosophical theories:

It’s possible that the guys with beer bottles, the ones clutching wine bottles (curiously called Apple Blossom), and those holding vodka bottles all shared the same thousand-yard stare. Perched at the edge of their lives and looking off into the distance, into infinity. It didn’t dawn on them that they could just get up and go. They were too grown up for that, too masculine and too proletarian.

Two decades have passed since the release of Walls of Hebron and not much of that short bio published by Brulion is still true. The nickname, used in the 1999 film about the author, Człowiek Zwany Świnią (The Man Called Pig), directed by Aleksandra Czarnecka and Dariusz Pawelec, is all but forgotten. His works were published abroad in more than a hundred editions. Driving to Babadag alone was translated into seventeen languages – and three new editions are currently in the works. Even the cuss he muttered upon learning that he will receive the Nike Literary Award for Driving to Babadag can be considered part of an image-building process, just like his cabin in the Beskids and his travels.

I always felt that Stasiuk is writing one book over and over again; a book about a guy lighting a cigarette, getting in a car, and driving to the fringes of Europe. Reading Grochów does nothing to change that feeling. Stasiuk will continue writing about the same things. The storytelling method will change, the style will mature, and there’s going to be more questions than answers. An icon? He’s the same guy he always was: a teenager expelled from high school, a deserter, “Pig”, peasant, star of the literary world, terrific writer, essayist, philosopher. Only now he’s more prone to admit to a certain form of sensitivity. And there’s Warsaw. Will he come back to it? Only if he’ll want to. But it will take place only on paper.  

translated by Jan Szelągiewicz

Tekst dostępny na licencji Creative Commons BY-NC-ND 3.0 PL.