Route 816

02.11.2016 Michał Książek
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  • Fundacja Sąsiedzi, Białystok 2015
    145 × 210, 176 pages
    ISBN: 978-83-6450-511-9

For Europeans, the East always begins somewhere else. For West Germans it's on the Elbe, for Germans from the former GDR on the Oder, for Poles on the Bug, for Ukrainians from Lviv - beyond the eastern border of the former Austria-Hungary. Where is that subtle frontier where the familiar turns into the foreign, or the familiar becomes a little different? The German writer Wolfgang Büscher once travelled on foot from Berlin to Moscow. Michał Książek also travels on foot, but along Poland's eastern border. He approaches it, but does not cross. The eponymous Route 816 runs from south to north along the Bug, right at the Ukrainian border. It's the outer frontier of the European Union, the former limit of the Soviet Union. An encounter of two worlds from two sides of the mirror. A deeply embedded cultural frontier, where Catholicism and the Orthodox faith interpenetrate. This is why the otherness perceived here is so literal – different shapes of cemetery crosses, even a different alphabet.

A writer can only benefit from a journey on foot, tread their way to their own style – their prose may gain both conciseness and distance. Because walkers see more. They have more time, march in defiance of a civilisation that imposes speed and fragmentariness, deluges them with images and sensations that are difficult to put in order. To have an adventure, walkers do not need exotic countries – for them, a journey can start right around the corner. Michał Książek's Route 816 is not typical reportage or travel literature: it's dense, succinct, sententious prose in which a naturalist bent accompanies a poetic sensibility. One could say it extends its sensitive antennae, sniffs people, animals, plants, and landscapes, succumbs to the rhythm of the march, opens up to birdsong and catches differences in the melody of the local language. With every sentence, every paragraph, it tells us: face the world. Be, experience more intensely.

What world does the walker encounter when struggling through the Polish winter on the side of Route 816? Along with the author, we roam the local towns and villages, experience the richness of their flora and fauna. There is an impression of being in a corner of the continent that is lost in the past, in an ecological niche where time has come to a standstill. The interplay of temperatures, colours, and changes of weather is important. They overlap with the author's memories and associations; his childhood coincided with the decline of communism. His knowledge of nature also makes itself known, permeating descriptions with the presence of animals, the flavour of names. The world of the local people is mainly that – local. Unhurried. Settled. Rooted in the landscape, in the regional history that is full of painful wounds. It is a world on the edge, bisected with a border and perched on one, hence more tangible, yet still mysterious, resisting recognition.

The American historian Timothy Snyder called Central Europe “the bloodlands”, for in the twentieth century it was within range of both the Nazi and Stalinist totalitarian regimes. The author encounters a trace of that era: the concentration camp in Sobibór which claimed two hundred and fifty thousand lives. “Without Jews, Włodawa makes no sense. A city of three cultures, of which really only one has survived. (…) It looked as if its modern history could not begin”, writes Książek. Before World War II, Ukrainian culture was also declining on the west bank of the Bug. It is an unhealed wound, visible in the landscape, too: hundreds of Orthodox churches have disappeared, destroyed by Poland. But on the other bank of the river, in Volhynia, tens of thousands of Poles were murdered by the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. There, in turn, traces of Polish culture recall the remains of drowned Atlantis.

The book's clear format makes reading it easy – it is divided into miniatures, none longer than a few pages, all of them structurally self-contained. This is not a chaotic catalogue of impressions from the road, but a meditative contemplation which approximates the essence of the places described. It must be said that Michał Książek's historical descriptions are always linked to the concrete reality he encounters. The author reads this land through nature, architecture, the symbols present in situ, without imposing a predetermined network of ideas. This is why this book is a lesson in sensitivity, offers a fresh perspective on an unknown land that is falling into oblivion – the country seen from the side of Route 816.

Artur Nowaczewski

Translated by Marta Dziurosz