Ziemowit Szczerek spent several years travelling around Ukraine, and has been the length and breadth of it, from Lviv to Odessa, and from Chernivtsi to Dnipropetrovsk. This highly unconventional book is the result of his experiences there. It isn’t reportage, or travel writing, or a guidebook for tourists, but more like a great big parody of the standard ways of writing about the “wild East” or “the post-Soviet jungle”, a place as fascinating as it is dangerous. Everything gets caricatured in here, including the Kerouac-style road trip, Andrzej Stasiuk’s chronicles of “second-rate Europe”, such as The Road to Babadag, and amateur accounts of journeys to the East to be found by the hundred in travel blogs, as well as on more professionally produced tourist websites. This particular source is of primary importance: at one point Szczerek betrays that his Ukrainian tales were first written in response to a commission from a Krakow-based website. However, there was a condition – his articles about Ukraine had to be in gonzo style. As Szczerek says: “In those articles I shocked the readers with plenty of Ukrainian arsing around. It had to be tough, nasty and horrid. That’s what gonzo’s all about.” So Szczerek’s travel stories are clearly a hoax – he has consciously distorted Ukrainian reality, so things that were just a bit ugly are now as monstrous and hideous as the Mordor of the title, immersed in a sea of alcohol and universal thuggery, populated with characters out of bandit rap or a horror film. rozwłóczyć
Is it the schoolboy joke of an irresponsible author? Not necessarily, because Szczerek has managed to extract the not-so-obvious, critical energy to be found in national stereotypes and – more broadly – in Polish images of “Russkie savages” and the dirty, uncivilized East. His distorted portrayal of the Ukrainians becomes a cruel self-portrait of the Poles – sure of their own cultural and historical superiority, and enjoying the fact that their version of post-communism is far better than the Ukrainian kind. Szczerek shows that this patronising attitude comes from a lack of self-confidence; we use Ukrainian “inferiority” – which in fact is probably more superficial than real – as a remedy for our own complexes. He examines for example his compatriots’ expeditions en masse to the old borderlands of pre-war Poland (eastern Galicia, and most often Lviv, which used to be Lwów), and how pitifully and indecently they play the role of “the Polish lords and masters”. However, he certainly doesn’t cast himself in the role of a moralist, concerned about the revival of imperialist or colonial attitudes on the part of the Poles; he rarely goes beyond mockery, not all of it clever, and some of it extremely vulgar for no particular reason. It is comforting that Szczerek is referring to things that are largely out of date now. The fashion for Ukrainian survival, which was common about ten years ago, and not just among young people, the desire to immerse oneself in Byzantine-Soviet pseudo-horror has probably gone forever, and that’s because there’s less and less of that sort of pseudo-horror left in Ukraine. Not even Mordor can escape globalization.
Translated by Antonia Lloyd-Jones
And so it turned out that I’d managed to make a profession out ofbullshitting. Telling lies.To put itmore professionally– reinforcing national stereotypes. Predominantly foul ones.
It’s worth it,because nothing sells better in Poland than Schadenfreude. I know this well. It was enoughjust to write a few articlesabout Ukraine in a gonzo style – and I had an assignment. In those articles I shocked readers with Ukrainian shittiness and arsehole behaviour.It had to be dirty, nastyand cruel. That’s the essence of gonzo. In gonzo there’s booze, fags, drugs and chicks. There are vulgarities. That’s how I wrote, and it was good.
The best regular commission I got was from one of Krakow’s brand-new websites. Every week I was supposed to send a chunkof Ukrainian meat. They were expecting hardcore, so hardcore’s what they got.
But before that I had to think up a pseudonym. I didn’t want to publish this rubbish under my own name. And so I wrote as Paul Ponicki. I figured that would be cool. Biblical pseudonyms always sound good. Like Jesus in The Big Lebowski or Chris Pontius in Jackass.
Well, in any case, they paid. And they sponsored a series oftrips to Ukraine. And so I bullshitted in my articles mightily, and I made up stories that were so hardcore nobody could possibly believe them.I turned Ukraine into acomplete bordello, a hellà la Kusturica, where anything at all can, and does, happen. The wild, wild east. Polish people liked it, clicked on it and read it. And the more they clicked, the more willingly the advertisers paid. In Poland, selling negative stereotypes about our neighbours yielded solid cash.
But it didn’t mean I had something against Ukraine. I didn’t. Everything I wrote just came of its own accord.And as normally happens, at the beginning I had the best of intentions. Or rather – I didn’t have any bad ones. Yes, I know what Hell is paved with.
So I travelled around Ukraine and searched for things to write about. They were everywhere, it was enough to just look around.
For example, one day my boss, Maciek, wanted some gonzo on a hot social topic. I don’t know why, but the topic of alcoholism popped into my head. I wrote some pseudo-reportage aboutan old granny-herbalist, a witch, who cured people of addiction to vodka. I heard about her while partying in Lviv. I can’t even remember where the truth ends and the bullshitting beginsin this story. I smoothed over the joinvery well.
In my gonzo articles it was like this: as a result of the USSR’s process of urbanization, my herbalist-witch moved about twenty or thirty years ago from her village to the city and no longer lived like a stereotypical witch, in a wooden hut hung with strings of garlicand bunches of dried herbs, but in a Khrushchev-era, bare-brickblock of flats on Lypynskoho Street in Lviv. She hung her herbs and garlic on the balcony, and brewed her concoctions in the bathroom.
Women came to the granny-herbalist with drunk men and launched into their lament: Help, Granny Lesia, help, I can’t live with him, he drinks like a fish – and the men stood behind them swaying on their feet and staring moronically at the floor like retarded children. Granny Lesia burned incense to fumigate the rascals, gave them something foul to drink, lit some kind of wool, and raked in the cash. Of course none of it worked, but a placebo is a placebo, and not many people returned to complain, just as nobody comes and complains at church that the prayers don’t work.
In my version, Granny Lesia’s treatment worked, at least for a while,becausesome stufffor cleaning drainshad been dissolved in the foul concoction given to the boozy men,and it fucked up their digestive system so badlythat theybecame unable to swallow not just alcohol, but even chicken cutlets à la Kiev. (…)
Maciek, the editor-in-chief, read it and said it was good, but – he asked – what if our gals start doing the same thing to their boozy boyfriends? And what if people get poisonedand we start getting sued because this shit-hottip came from us?
So I added to my article that Granny Lesia’s treatment did nothing in the long term […].
I sat down in a bar. A couple of 60-year-olds were sitting there. They looked like an American enclave on Ukrainian territory. They had such American faces that there was no way they could be from anywhere else. That typicalself-confidence mixed with a lost look.
The area at and aroundtheir table was America and nothing else. Not the city of Izmail, in the Budjak region ofUkraine. America was there in their facial expression, their gestures, and their way of dealing with space. She, sitting stiff as a poker, was mad about something, but she was restraining her anger, she had control ofit; the anger was reflected solely in her fierce facial expression and in the drumming of her long, thin fingers on the keyboard of a laptop; she drummed like a rainstorm. As for him – he didn’t know quite what to do with himself. He had the elongated face of an American loser from a Hollywood film. By turns he read a newspaper, glanced at the screen of his mobile phone, at the Kilia River and at Romania on the far side ofit. Sometimes he tried to talk tothe woman, but she – tall, thin, with a sharp nose, and rather sharp all over – justhissed at him.
I sat down at the next table. The woman was attacking the keyboard as ifshe wanted to destroy her laptop entirely. The guy glanced at me hopefully. At my backpack, at my clothes which gave me away as a foreigner. He was clearly trying to figure out how to start talking to me. And it was obvious he really needed to talk.
Finally he got up,cameover, and said: “They’ve got pretty hot babes here in Ukraine, haven’t they?” And then he added, more quietly so his wife wouldn’t hear: “Feminism hasn’t given them swollen heads yet.”
It was so stupid, pathetic and desperate that I felt sorry for him. I invited him to sit down. And so he sat down and began his lament, which youcould call the Peace Corps worker’s blues.
A one, and a two, and a one, two, three, four:
His name is Jack. His wife’s name is Ruth. Jack and Ruth are from Boston. Not so long ago, when they led the typical lives of members of the American middle class, they promised themselves that when they retired they would tourthe world. His wife – oo-oo, the Peace Corps worker’s blues – dreamed of helping people in foreign countries, which they’d only had a rather foggy idea about until then. And so, when they retired, which both of them happened to do in the same year, they decided to join the Peace Corps. Oo-oo, the Peace Corps worker’s blues.
The wife – like almost everyone in America at a certain point in their lives – began to dig into her origins, curious about what kind of European roots she had. All the information about her ancestors wasrather dull – every trailled to England, Scotland, Ireland, or Germany – except one: leading to Ukraine. Oo-oo, the Peace Corps worker’s blues.
They signed a contract for two years. All they knew wasthat they were going somewhere in Ukraine. That’s how it is in the Peace Corps –you don’t know where they’re sending you until the very last minute. They dreamed of Odessa, and he’d written on the form that he had worked for a firm that took care of the logistics of loading cargo ships. That’s why he and his wife wanted to go to a city on the sea. Maybe he could be usefulat a port, as an adviser or something. He would tell the people of the East how thefuckin’ logistics of loading cargo ships works in America. And so they sat on their suitcases and waited for a decision from Odessa. Oo-oo, the Peace Corps worker’s blues. But perverse fate, in the form of some spiteful bureaucrat, sent them to Izmail.
“You got what you wanted,” the bureaucrat said. “Ukraine, with the sea close by. There you go.”
Jack looked sadly into my eyes, and I glanced at his wife smashing her laptop to bits.
“For two years?” I asked.
“For two years,” he replied, and for a moment we were silent. All that could be heard was some Russian disco and the clatter of the keyboard.
“And how much of it have you got through, so far?”
Oo-oo, the Peace Corps worker’s blues.
“And so?” I asked, lighting a cigarette. “Are you doing some kind of work? Involvedwith the sea?”
The guy glanced at the table and noticed a poolof beer. He wetted his finger in it and began to draw squiggles on the table.
“Yeah, tell him, Jack,” his wife suddenly blurted from behind the laptop. “Tell him.”
“Y-yyeah,” said Jack. “A few days ago... we took some kids from an elementary school class to the sea. And we cleaned the beach. We cleared the beach of bottles and.... things like that.”
“And condoms,” we heard from above the laptop.
“And condoms,” Jack obediently confirmed.
“But it’s not that we don’t like it here,” he added quickly. “The city is...nice. It’s... peaceful. Not much happens, but... at our age... that’s an asset. It’s... hm... warm. Pleasant. Odessa isn’t that far away....” he said, whilehis wife pounded the laptop as ifshe wanted to smash it into splinters.
“That’s great,” I said. “But can’t you go back to the States earlier? You know, in the unlikely case that you stop liking it here someday.”
Jack shook his head. “No, we can’t. We signed a contract. But no, no, no, listen, it’s really great here,” he quickly stammered, revving up the engine of his positive American approach to the subject.
I didn’t even have to invent any gonzo.
Translated by Scotia Gilroy