The Northern Path

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A Review of Lotem gęsi (Following the Path of Geese) by Mariusz Wilk. This review originally appeared in New Eastern Europe 3(IV)/2012.

 

Mariusz Wilk, Polish writer and wanderer, does not write his diaries like others do. Wilk has a different intellectual perspective in writing: for him what matters is space and place, and to follow Wilk, the reader needs to take his path. In his travels Wilk does not just follow a specific route. Neither does he chase excitement. He wanders. And he’s been wandering for years, with his thoughts and mind. This style of travel is also reflected in his latest diary, Lotem gęsi, which has recently been published in Polish.

Wilk has friended the north and has been living there for the last 20 years. He has traded his life as an oppositionist, co-author of Konspira (a book published in 1984 in Paris which became prime reading for the Polish communist opposition movement) and journalist, for the life of a writer/wanderer. During the 1990s, Wilk decided to abandon his urban life and moved to the Solovki Islands, where his book, The Journals of a White Sea Wolf, was written. Years later, this wanderer of the north, as he calls himself, moved to Lake Onega where he started writing his diary, and where subsequent parts of his diary were written: Dom nad Oniego (House on the Onego) (2006), Tropami rena (Following the Reindeer) (2007) i Lotem gęsi (Following the Path of the Geese) (2012). Wilk’s books have been translated into many languages, including English, German and French.

Lotem gęsi comprises three stages of a story. It starts in Petrozavodsk, the capital city of the Republic of Karelia, and at some point moves to Canada and follows the path of Kenneth White’s novels (a Scottish poet and writer – editor’s note), ending up back in Konda Bierezna, a place described in his Dziennik północny.

We travel through Petrozavodsk following the steps of his research notes, the traces of city tours, and Wilk’s own walks. In the capital of the Republic of Karelia, Wilk seeks the traces of Charles Longseville, an engineer with the French artillery who, during Napoleon’s march towards Russia was captured and imprisoned by the Cossacks. In Petrozavodsk, Longseville builds canons and becomes the model of a hero. The story of this man, which, in fact, sits somewhere between reality and fiction, involves nobody else but Maxim Gorky (an early Soviet writer credited with promoting the idea of Socialist Realism – editor’s note). The investigation, which is almost criminal, provides a surprising solution, which cannot be revealed in this review. Nevertheless, this is just one of such stories. The book includes many more.    

The next stage of the diary brings the reader to Canada. Wilk takes us there to follow the path of La Route Bleu, a novel written by Kenneth White about a journey to Labrador (in the far north of Canada). Wilk makes his travel from Karelia to Canada to confront White’s geopoetics, and to personally witness the place, which a few decades before him, the Scottish writer explored to find space and, as he writes, “to make [his] way out of the Jehovian occupation of the world”. Wilk’s tribal sense of connection with White takes him into the unknown. However, this path brings him more disappointments than enjoyment. 

Page after page, we travel 6,000 kilometres by car and 2,000 by boat. When experimenting with La Route Bleu, Wilk clearly and consciously cannot keep up with his pen and constantly makes quick notes. Short, touristic “glimpses”. But he does not find comfort in such travels. In following White’s footsteps, Wilk, is in fact, searching for the history of the places he has visited. This is not an easy task for somebody who is not attracted to the reality cut out of a guide book. Hasty travels do not allow much more than a post-card type reflection, and modern tourism takes over old-fashioned travel. Only in literary terms does Wilk not lose his breath.

However, this dream journey does not seem to give him as much joy as he initially thought it would. Surrounded by empty lakes and empty scenes of other tourists, Wilk tries to compare his own experiences with what White described in his book. At each step, however, he returns unconsciously to his own northern experiences with his pen and his thoughts. We learn that his own experiences are dearer to his heart than the foreign land of Labrador. On his path of whales, unable to avoid the literary association with Herman Melville, he comes to the rather grim conclusion that Canadian restaurants don’t serve fresh fish.

In Konda Bierezna, Wilk returns to the voice which the reader can easily recognise from his other works, such as Dom nad Oniego. After this point, his clear writing returns – a mix of irregular, but witty rhythm, which is so characteristic of Wilk’s style. The wanderer, clearly, feels most at home when he is in his Konda Bierezna, not only physically but also in literary terms. Konda is the ghost village of the north where in the winter nobody even ventures to deliver mail. Here, one can sit, read, and reflect, or simply work. Emigration and correspondence with the outside world from a place which is hard to find on a map take on a new meaning. But this Russian settlement also gives him an impulse to tear away all labels of being a Pole, a Catholic, and many others. To lose them, Wilk encounters the “other”, his nomadic spiritual journey. He does not want to be a tourist-writer. In Konda Bierezna he tries to devour the reality and pay attention to every detail. Going deep to record the truth of a given place, don’t we get, in fact, deeper into ourselves and find our own truth? Perhaps yes, but by writing about such small fragments of reality, Wilk provides his reader with a paradoxically large part of Russia. This is not bait for readers who are fans of reports, like those of another Polish writer and reporter, Jacek Hugo-Bader, but rather an inspirational offer for those who spend their lives wandering.

Wilk writes his diaries by catching “traces”. However, each new experience on his path can change these traces. Wilk doesn't seek individual experiences which can be caught in a hasty manner, such as tourist attractions and an idolatrous admiration of the countryside. Looking deep into Russia, Wilk looks deep into his own soul. If he traces history, it is based on a solid literary foundation. And to document it, he only needs words, not photography. There is also a new trace in his life: his young daughter. Her arrival, as Wilk himself admits, has changed his life entirely. If it wasn’t for her, the book would probably not include a reflection on Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. She becomes a new direction in her father’s nomadism.

Lotem gęsi isn't a hasty piece of prose. Its story is similar to the people who want to visit Wilk in his northern house: many promise to come, but few ever make it. Others who come to visit can't tolerate the silence. The select few who do reach it have a powerful conversation – in silence.

 

Lotem gęsi. By Mariusz Wilk. Publisher: Noir Sur Blanc, Warsaw, 2012.

 

Łukasz Wojtusik is a Polish journalist and radio reporter. He is the head of the Krakow office of the radio program TOK FM.

 

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

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