The pastor is skeptical. In the middle of the night, “the Polish army” stands in front of his door in the form of two torn men and demands entry. “I don't know, I don't know… Without a uniform? Anyone can do that...” But platoon commander Siwy has a convincing argument in the belt of his pants: “Polish pistol, so also Polish army.”
In his new novel, Andrzej Stasiuk tells of a strange war, an eastern drôle de guerre, as the period between the outbreak of war in September 1939 and the German western campaign in May 1940 is called in France. "Grenzfahrt" takes place in the days of the attack on the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941. The characters in the novel appear to be a mixed bag, as does the partisan force recruited by the Polish sergeant Siwy on the German-occupied side of the river (on the other side it says Dank of the Hitler-Stalin Pact the Red Army).
There is the opportunistic farmer Romaniuk, with whom the irregulars are hiding with that only Polish pistol. The woman from the neighboring farm, whom some call a “gypsy” and others a “witch” because of her healing skills. The young German soldier who is billeted in her house with his troops and who, before the offensive, gets his first sex from her in exchange for binoculars. The Jewish siblings from the distant city who decided the family to flee to the USSR and who are now stuck on the German side of the border. And the ferryman, who comes from the other side of the river, where the Soviets burned down his hut, and who not only has a boat, but also knows how to cross the river unnoticed.
Although Stasiuk works with partly fictitious place names and the name of the river – the Bug – is not mentioned, the plot can be localized fairly precisely: in the vicinity of the small Polish town of Drohiczyn, which was on the “Russian” side at the time. But Stasiuk, the great poet of the "Sarmatian" expanses, is concerned with an exemplary, parable-like constellation. He zooms in on a tiny section of what Timothy Snyder called “Bloodlands” in Eastern Europe. Two farms, a village, the river, a small town form a blind corner of world history, whose terrible, fateful processes we have learned to fear on a large scale: totalitarianism of right and left forms, war of annihilation, Holocaust.
The characters haunt the past and future in nightmares or daydreams. The Jewish refugee Max, a philosophy student dreaming of a socialist paradise, is constantly driving over the maps of the vast Soviet empire in his thoughts and is painting a fairytale journey for his despairing sister.
Siwy, the more ridiculous than tragic patriot, is traumatized by Poland's defeat in 1939 and babbles on about the final triumph against both Germans and Russians, a Don Quixote of pre-war nationalism. A partisan just called “boy” keeps dreaming back to the childhood idyll of his home village. The name is briefly mentioned: Sobibór. In early 1942, half a year after the novel took place, construction of the death camp began there, in which around 180,000 Jews were murdered in gas chambers.
In the feverish dreams of a dying man, the still deceptively calm summer landscape is already turning into a global conflagration. When a ferryman crosses a river in such a realm of the dead, the Acheron is not far. But the mythical model doesn't really fit here. Rather, this Charon, who is called Lubko here, brings Jews to the safe shore, out of tangible interests, but at the risk of his own life.
It is striking how the initially anonymous characters are given proper names over the course of the novel, as if the story itself were making them individuals, autonomous actors – for better or for worse. Violence is constantly present in this suspenseful and action-packed novel, from the execution of a suspected spy, the slaughter of a pig, a secret mission on the Russian side. But only at the end does the coincidental encounter of different fates escalate in a brutal way.
Stasiuk interrupts the multi-perspective storyline with autobiographical passages of the present, in which he explores the locations of the novel as a memory landscape of his own childhood. There he visits his father, who suffers from dementia, searches for traces of the past, but realizes that the story can only be preserved as fiction.
Stasiuk evokes a world that will inevitably sink into oblivion, individually, but also in an entire country - the Polish provinces, which are once again poisoned by right-wing slogans. As a novel about the devaluation of human life in war, about brutalization and the dissolution of morality, "Grenzfahrt" is shockingly topical. Its real protagonist is the landscape itself, which today, a little further to the east, has again become a bloody Schindanger.
Andrzej Stasiuk: "Border Trip". Translated from the Polish by Renate Schmidgall. Suhrkamp, 355 pages, 25 euros.