Distance is measured as much by the imagination as it is in miles. Eastern Europe and Omaha, Nebraska are thousands of miles and an ocean apart, but a used bookstore brought them closer together for me. One book shrank that distance down to nothing. Reminding me of the magical power of words to bring places lodged in the memory back to life.
Rare Editions – By The Book
Within an hour of getting off the plane in Omaha I was striding through the Old Market area of the downtown. I had spent only a few minutes at the hotel dropping off my bags before I was pounding a path to my favorite destination in Omaha, Jackson Street Booksellers. Omaha might not be a hotbed of Eastern European émigrés, but Jackson Street booksellers has an Eastern Europe section better than that of any bookstore I have visited in the United States. Its selection of used books on Eastern Europe is unrivaled in my experience. I have entered other famous used bookstores in the United States, including Strand Bookstore in New York City and Powell’s City of Books in Portland with high hopes of finding a treasure trove of tomes covering every country east of the old Iron Curtain. Almost invariably, I have left disappointed.
Books on former Eastern Bloc countries are still something of a rarity at even the biggest used booksellers in America. The interest from a critical mass of population just isn’t there. At best, there will be a scattering of the most famous books on the region, such as James Michener’s The Bridge at Andau on the 1956 Hungarian Revolution or Robert Kaplan’s Balkan Ghosts, a magnificent history/travelogue of unrivaled insight on the region during the tumultuous 1990’s. Every so often I might get lucky and run across Rebecca West’s Black Lamb, Grey Falcon on her remarkable pre-World War II travels in what was then Yugoslavia. Unfortunately, these and a few other books are the most common ones on the region readily available at used booksellers. Everything else is conspicuous by its scarcity.
Nagykallo – The Other Hungary
Jackson Street Booksellers has an Eastern European section that covers several shelves. If you are looking for a volume on the Romanian perspective concerning Transylvania’s history, it is within reach. The same goes for an academic tome on the history of Medieval Ukraine. The owner of Jackson Street Booksellers has gone above and beyond what would normally be expected. Great finds on Eastern Europe can also be found in the travel section. I got firsthand experience with this when I pulled “On The Road to Babadag: Travels In the Other Europe by the Polish writer Andrezj Stasiuk. The book’s title intrigued me. Flipping through it at length, I came across chapter names that were mysteriously vague, yet held a magnetic allure, much like Eastern Europe itself. One of the first chapters was “The Slovak Two Hundred”, which I thought might be a road, but was instead a map. “Description of a Journey through East Hungary to Ukraine” sent visions of remote, dusty villages on the fringes of Hungary dancing in my head.
When I thumbed through this chapter I saw the word “Nagykallo”. Anyone who had been to that town was a kindred spirit. The fact that the author found his experience in Nagykallo worth writing about had me ready to purchase the book. I had been to Nagykallo and so had Stasiuk. That was enough for me. And still there was more. A chapter entitled Tara Sercuilor, Szekelyfold, Szekerland had my pulse racing. A window into the world of eastern Transylvania is something I have been longing for ever since I visited there myself. Other quixotic names appeared in the chapter titles, places such as Baia Mare, Shqiperia and of course, Babadag. These were places in an Eastern Europe that I had thought only existed in the furtive imagination of people like me. Stasiuk had actually visited them. I was filled with pangs of envy and a lust to learn more. This book was not just about travel in Eastern Europe, it was about the spaces in between the Pragues and Lvivs, the Budapests and Bucharests, that netherworld of sublime normalcy for Eastern Europeans that many see, but very few write about, especially in the English language. I needed to know more about the book because I felt like the author, Andrzej Stasiuk, had written the book for people like me.
Nomadic Instincts – The Consummate Outsider
Stasiuk is a Polish author and as such, The Road to Babadag was originally written in Polish and translated into English. This is astonishing because Stasiuk’s travel writing would be difficult to translate. It can best be described as stream of consciousness. A master of words, his literary skill befits someone who is more poet and novelist than travel writer. Stasiuk comes from a non-traditional literary background. Not only does he not have a college degree, but he was kicked out of secondary school and later dropped out of a vocational school. A stint in the military ended in desertion. From reading his bio, I sensed that Stasiuk is the kind of magnificent misfit who was never suited to modern life. The consummate outsider, not by choice, but by his nomadic instincts. It is difficult to put Stasiuk’s writing into a literary genre. The phrase most often used is post-modern. His literary output has mostly been novels, but the Road to Babadag was an initial foray into travel writing than turned into a stunning success.
On The Road to Babadag is dreamy, to the point of hallucinatory. Take the following passage: “It is good to come to a country you know practically nothing about. Your thoughts grow still, useless. Everything must be rebuilt. In a country you know nothing about, there is no reference point. You struggle to associate colors, smells, dim memories. You live a little like a child, or an animal. Objects and events may bring things to mind, but in the end they remain no more than what they are in fact. They begin only when we experience them, vanish when others follow. So they truly have no significance. They are made of that primal substance that touches our senses but is too light, too evanescent, to teach us anything.”
Stasiuk’s Sixth Sense – A Stream of Subconsciousness
Passages such as these had a magical effect upon me. I was reading Stasiuk and at the same time fragments of memories from my travels came flooding back…the container of orange juice I drank on my first morning in Bulgaria, a barking dog in the wrong room I entered at a hostel in Pecs, a prettily painted farm house in southern Romania, bare trees covering an anonymous mountainside in Transylvania, a lake shimmering silver in the autumn sunlight as seen from a train window in eastern Poland. Here was everything being brought back from nothing. Reading Stasiuk stimulated a sixth sense. His writing in The Road To Babadag is a portal, both to Stasiuk’s travels and to my own, starting in a used bookshop in Omaha and ending thousands of miles away.