In his latest novel Andrzej Stasiuk tells a tale of a very last phase of capitalism. His two main heroes — Paweł, a marketeer who circulates among the bazaars of these European provinces, and Włodek, his driver — suffer a symbolic and actual defeat in their encounter with the new force. Up till this moment they’d always managed to come out on top. Paweł in particular is like a knight errant of the first phase of capitalism in these parts. This phase — which involved the distribution of cut-price imitations of name-brand goods — lasted from the end of the 1980’s till the present day. Its masters were precisely folk like Paweł — self-appointed merchants, nomads of market routes, sailors who unerringly caught the winds of opportunity. They were the ones who crammed their battered automobiles with fourth-grade merchandise and drove it to the suburbs of Bucharest, Budapest, Prague, or Berlin. Society in those days resembled a starving vacuum cleaner that sucked up everything: socks, jackets, shoes, handbags, cosmetics, auto parts, housewares — all bearing stickers that said Paris-London-New York.
But now the next stage has come along — dirt-cheap goods from China. In place of the cheap stuff sold till now, which lasted two or three seasons, come low-grade goods that anyone can afford and that are essentially disposable. The traveling salesmen of yesterday are relegated to the level of clerks at other people’s stalls, yesterday’s culture of short-lived products becomes a culture of one-time use. Asia invades Europe, not with an army, but with trade. It floods the continent with knockoffs of knockoffs, in other words merchandise the Chinese copied from Central European products that were themselves copies of Western items.
If someone has the impression that Stasiuk has created a contemporary version of the story of how “the yellow race overcomes the white race,” they will only partly be right. Stasiuk is less interested in portraying the victors in this capitalist duel of deceptions, more in showing us the losers — that is to say, the pariahs of Europe, inhabitants of its poorest regions, people condemned to a worse life because they live in a worse place. These people acquire the cheapest goods, but they themselves, especially the women, are also turned into merchandise. The only thing Western Europe exports to Central Europe is its trash, its used objects, the detritus of its development, while from there it imports male bodies for its harsher jobs and female bodies for its entertainment. In this way the strength of money and the weakness of the provinces cause the ideal of Europe to enter liquidation. And since history driven by money has no brakes, it is a liquidation that cannot be reversed.
The wind was blowing from over the plain, stronger and stronger. The sound of bells drifted from the village. The monks had fallen silent. The red sun was dropping toward the west. The shadows were already long and black. I could smell wood smoke and manure.
Then I saw her. She was walking along, huge and black, leading her young. The other people had spotted her too; they froze, then began to move to the side. I’d never see one that big. She was trotting along with her snout to the ground, nosing about. From time to time she paused, raised her head and smelled the wind like a hunting dog. She was leading six piglets. They ran about in every direction, mobile and fat, like balls of black mercury. Their snouts touched the ground like their mother’s. They jogged onto the square with the cheap Chinese goods. The old one stayed on the main aisle between the stalls. The piglets, which were no bigger than medium-sized dogs, behaved like children. They were testing to see how much they could get away with. The mother was squealing, and it seemed they had her permission to go wherever they wanted so long as they could still hear her. They sniffed at the piles of knockoff clothing, pressing their noses among the heaps of jeans and jackets. They snorted and squeaked in their high children’s voices. The people selling the Chinese clothing stood without moving and watched ever more closely. There were three men and one woman. Vietnamese more likely than Chinese. Who can tell them apart. But there was a time I had a lot of dealings with both of them, and the Vietnamese had more delicate faces. In any case they looked more like white people than the Chinese did. Though I could be wrong. They stood there and watched. They’d come west, to the edge of the Great Hungarian Plain, from the East, just like the Hungarians themselves a thousand years ago. The Hungarians had needed grass for their horses; these folk were looking for new markets for mass-produced clothes made in China. One of the piglets grabbed a jacket from the pile in its teeth and dragged it along the ground. Its brother or sister immediately joined in the game. From thirty yards away I heard the sound of ripping material. At that point one of the traders set off toward the animals, reached them and started doling out kicks. He was wearing a dark blue jacket like the one being mistreated, jeans, and white sports shoes. The young piglets began a piggy lament. Their sharp high-pitched squeals rose over the square. At this moment the mother moved into action. I saw her out of the corner of my eye. She pushed a couple of onlookers out of the way and gathered speed like a small warmed-up machine. As she drew closer to her target her strides got longer and longer. Finally she leapt into the air and knocked the Vietnamese guy off his feet. The two of them fell to the ground several feet away. The man was completely immobilized beneath the sow’s huge black body. He disappeared from view. All I could see were his white Chinese shoes. They kicked once or twice, then the heels dug into the dirt and stopped moving. The mother pig had stomped him into the ground and ripped his throat open. Now it was lapping at the place and making smacking noises. The piglets ran up and stood in a tight circle. At this point not even the sports shoes could be seen. We were in a second ring of gawkers, which was gradually closing in. The animals were eating noisily with soft, warm, whimpering sounds, and all of a sudden the woman began howling in a voice like no one there had ever heard before. She moved forward with her fists pressed to her ears and approached the family of pigs as her voice rose higher and higher, the kind of voice they say can break glass.
The mother pig raised her soiled snout. The woman was still walking and howling. The animal moved a couple of steps away from the man and started to observe her, then took a step back and tensed, evidently unafraid of anything. We were all breathless from fear. We wanted the pig to stop looking about and go back to what it had begun. Twenty or thirty men and almost as many women were thinking: Keep eating the slant-eyes and leave us alone.
But the pig couldn’t make up its mind. It looked at the diminutive woman with her fists at her temples and stepped back as if preparing for another attack. Finally it set off and started to gather speed like an illustration of some law of kinetics. We were all standing fifteen yards away. And then there came a whistle. Long and piercing, as if someone were pulling a thread between your ears. The sow dug its trotters into the dirt and came to a stop. The whistle had come from the leader, the guy Władek had shaken hands with. The animal moved its head, looked at the woman once again, then turned round and headed back, headed for where it had come from.
The man who’d whistled was standing not far off in his black suit and his hat. He watched the pig family go. He shaded his eyes with his hand and looked across the plain into the sun.
We didn’t say a word. I drove as fast as I could. We’d left right away. We were afraid of cops. We didn’t want to get involved in any questioning. I kept the left wheel on the center line. You could have said we were running away. Some of them were probably still standing there staring into the dark. In Nyíregyháza we took a wrong turn, but he muttered that there was no point in backtracking, we could get back this way too, it would just take a bit longer. The road narrowed. Almost all the signposts began with “Tisza”—Tisza this, tisza that. Muggy air came in through the open window. It smelled of marsh. You could tell there was a river. We crossed a bridge. We came into Tokay, but we bypassed the downtown. Everywhere they were black-painted barrels with billboards and signs: Bor, wine, Wein, vin, wino and so on, even in Japanese and Arabic—why not. People were sitting in gardens under umbrellas. I could see them lifting their glasses. Thirty-five miles away a black pig had ripped open a man’s throat, and they were sitting drinking white wine. Coaches and automobiles lined the roadsides. We drove onto a viaduct. The highway buzzed down below. But it all ended right away. The buzz, and the movement, and the lights. The road became bumpy. The sky was still a shade lighter than the night, and it formed a backdrop for the outline of the hills. We passed a village. A few lights showed up yellow in the gloom and were extinguished. I turned on the full beams. The road climbed in gentle bends through woods. I shifted into third and glanced at the temperature gauge.
“We didn’t come this way,” I said.
“No. But it makes no difference,” he answered. “Twelve miles through the mountains, and then it’ll be on the flat and we’ll almost be in Slovakia.”
Translated by Bill Johnoston