Mordor Will Come and Eat Us: A Confidential History of the Slavs. By: Ziemowit Szczerek. Korporacja Ha!art Poland, 2013.
The book Przyjdzie Mordor i nas zje, czyli tajna historia Słowian (“Mordor Will Come and Eat Us: A Confidential History of the Slavs”) was awarded the Paszport Polityki Prize, one of the most prestigious Polish literary awards, in 2013. Ziemowit Szczerek, a Kraków-based journalist and travel writer, one of the pioneers of Gonzo journalism in Poland, included in it his experiences from numerous travels to Ukraine. This is not typical travel literature.
There is a reason why at one point the author mentions Jack Kerouac, explaining that, as opposed to the American writer, he and his companions “had no purpose”. “If we got drunk, wasted f…ing time, took drugs… it was not to rebel against anything… but to do whatever”. Szczerek’s book is in reality a hybrid of Gonzo reporting and a road trip tale. One must admit that this connection resulted in a completely interesting thing, and above all it is a great read. Linguistically, perhaps Szczerek is not brilliant, but he certainly keeps a high level, has accurate comparisons and uses obscenities where they should be used. In other words, the language fits the described history well.
“Instead of Benzedrine, we had vigour balsam (a Ukrainian drug for potency – author’s note). Instead of rural America and Mexico of the 1950s, we had Ukraine,” Szczerek writes. Yes, they had Ukraine, and not just the Ukrainian countryside. The stories described in the book have, for instance, Lviv, Kyiv, Dnepropetrovsk, Odessa or Sevastopol, described by Szczerek as “post-Soviet Italy”, as the surroundings. However, without regards to the plot setting, each time we witness “hard-core Ukraine”; we read in various places that “everything is f…ed up and does not work”, as the German Heike says; the whole country exists and grows through chaos. We as readers can participate in “Ukrainian sh….ness and disorganisation”. Szczerek’s Ukraine is a country wallowing in atrophy, one big “lack of form” and “junkyard” with many absurdities, such as camels being transported by bus to the peak of Ai-Petri, a house’s wall made of an old billboard or a castle seemingly directly cut out of a Disney cartoon. Ukraine is a country where cities sprawl without any plan, and whose inhabitants pretend that they have Polish ancestry to get change from Polish tourists; where students pretend to be tour guides in caves, also to get money; where militiamen constantly take bribes; and where Russian disco “like smog rises above the city” and dominates. Ukraine is, as Udaj and Kusaj, particularly unique friends of the main character, say, an incredibly trippy reality.
This is because the book includes many alcohol and drug-related trips. Practically throughout the whole book the characters are wasted or stoned, and getting drugs is like stealing candy from a baby. One of the longer chapters is titled “Acid”: in it the author talks about travelling by car across the Ukrainian sideways high on a very strong form of LSD. Thus, “in Gonzo there is vodka, there are cigs, there are drugs and there are chicks”. With regards to the last item, Szczerek portrays two students of Polish literature from Warsaw posing to be intellectuals who came to Drohobycz to travel Bruno Schulz’s paths. He shows what they really want in this journey – the whole episode ends in a great drunken stupor. There is also the aforementioned German Heike, with whom the author has sex because they both had nothing better to do. But Szczerek decidedly writes much more about drugs, not concentrating too much on describing their effects; in this regard he is far removed from early-20th-century Polish writer Witkacy, for example. Alcohol and drugs are instead a setting or, instead, a necessary element of the voyage. The book, however, is not just a description of places and people; there are quite a few ideological disputes, talks of history and discussions about the future of the country east of the Bug River.
But Szczerek wrote his book perhaps to point out the flaws of the Poles. “Only with regards to us can you feel like protectionists. You can feel better that everywhere else they wipe you’re a..es,” says a Ukrainian woman whom he met in a train. “Did you come here as if to a zoo?” asks Taras from Przemyśl. In the chapter titled “Gonzo” the author directly admits that writing under the nom de plume Paweł Poncki (“Pontius Paul” in Polish) – because, as he writes, Biblical pseudonyms are cool – travel literature for websites he quite simply “made up rubbish”. He solidified stereotypes about Ukraine present in our country because they wanted what for they paid him. Thus he invented histories such as that about an old woman who treats alcoholism with herbs, about corruption in the railway system, about a drunk security guard terrorising the train wagon or about a Canadian mistakenly taken to be a drug addict and raped by his fellow prisoners “because nothing sells better in Poland than Schadenfreude”.
Wojciech Klęczar studied Law at the Jagiellonian University. He is an internet editor, freelance journalist, prose writer and essayist. He lives in Kraków.