Ziemowit Szczerek,"Tatuaż z tryzubem"

Czarne, Wołowiec 2015
Ziemowit Szczerek’s second book about Ukraine consists of thirteen texts, passages from which were earlier published inPolityka,Nowa Europa Wschodnia, andDziennikarze Wędrownimagazines. The author followed the topos of a road – this time from the West to the East – which let him construct a series of conventional representations of Ukraine as a defunct post-Soviet state. Szczerek believes that its fecklessness is manifested chiefly in the realm of aesthetics, dishevelment, and lack of form that in the last quarter of a century, and even much earlier, have claimed the public space of Ukrainian cities.

Ziemowit Szczerek’s second book about Ukraine consists of thirteen texts, passages from which were earlier published inPolityka,Nowa Europa Wschodnia, andDziennikarze Wędrownimagazines. The author followed the topos of a road – this time from the West to the East – which let him construct a series of conventional representations of Ukraine as a defunct post-Soviet state. Szczerek believes that its fecklessness is manifested chiefly in the realm of aesthetics, dishevelment, and lack of form that in the last quarter of a century, and even much earlier, have claimed the public space of Ukrainian cities.
Judging by the content of the book, the author perceives the shaping of the public space as one of the chief duties of the state. The level of development is an intriguing indicator of the condition of the state, that is the indicator of the degree of its functionality. In Szczerek’s book, this indicator proves highly disadvantageous in the case of Ukraine. It is possible that with Ukraine one may actually not be able to speak about any indicator, as it might have been fairer to speak of its lack. That is of the relative dysfunctionality of the state.
According to Szczerek, the Ukrainian state operates solely in the realm of symbols, in the process of annexation of the public state by branding it with the Tryzub (trident) symbol. One could ironically refer to this procedure as tagging, marking the territory controlled by a gang, painting over in blue-and-yellow.
The post-apocalyptic images of Ukrainian cities, where the decay of architectural structures caused by the construction free-for-all of residential building users coincides with the absolute lack of a sense of aesthetics, means refinement in the post-Soviet minds. This is visible in city streets, in the rotting urban tissue, in how members of Ukrainian society dress, and in objects of everyday use. The only cool element that Ukraine has produced during its existence in the capacity of a sovereign political entity was the revolution. And this only because revolution is always perceived as something cool, which is even cooler where it does not occur.
Fixation on the aesthetic nonetheless has its consequences. The vision-centric narrative falling back on the author’s own experience does not allow him to construct a conceptual depth.
The topos of the road, transition, and the continuous being in motion disturb the narrator’s perspective. Sometimes to the degree that the social landscape and certain historical formations can be perceived as no more than blurred images. Which is why the arguments of a historical and philosophic nature are the book’s weakest aspect.
Similarly, the myth of the West, which pursues the author from one text to another, annoys with its singular dimension. A necessary part of the myth – the narrative about the perpetual imitation that the periphery, that is Central and Eastern Europe, is consigned to is branded by lack of understanding or purposeful disregard of the complex dynamic of cultural flows.
The speed at which the narrator moves at times sharpens his insight to a degree that means we can speak of flashes of genius. He knows how to replace the bulky volumes of analyses by experts in ideological and political transformations in Ukraine with a handful of sentences or a metaphor. He shows, for example, that the experience of crossing state borders, accessible to anyone, can be treated as a particular source of knowledge on the nature of the state and the disciplining tools that it has at its disposal and uses towards its citizens. It is easier to imagine what’s on the other side when you are on the border.
It is the aspect of the imaginable that defines Szczerek’s texts best. The centre of his narrative contains, besides the actual events, imaginary situations that have never taken place and facts that the author has significantly transformed for the sake of fiction. Thus, we learn what King Boleslaus the Brave might have done with Predslava on the way back to Poland, how the Polish soldiers from villages around Krakow felt marching in the streets of metropolitan Kiev in 1920, and what the world would look like if we treated the radical historical narratives of the nations of the Central and Eastern Europe seriously.
These fantastic descriptions bristling with wit in a sense meld into a subversive literary current, delicately transforming our notion of reportage as a literary genre, whose goal – or one of them at least – is to expand the reader’s knowledge of a certain area of reality or focus the reader’s attention on a certain problem or subject.
Szczerek also expands our knowledge, be it through the description of an individual case, aberration, or eccentricity. We learn what the fashion of the revolutionary Maidan looked like, why on its borders Ukraine left the golden sculpture of Grigori Yakovlevich Varavin, hero of the Soviet Union, border guard and party candidate, and how to smuggle a dozen pigeons across the border. Nonetheless, we will find nothing about how the Maidan was organised, and why it was nowhere else but in Ukraine that the need to rebel radically against the powers that be emerged.
With his books, Szczerek changes our expectations towards reportage. He is, or may be, one of the precursors of a new genre that we could call an alternative reportage. That is one where information, adventure, fiction, knowledge, and entertainment combine.

Patrik Oriešek

Translated from the Polish by Piotr Krasnowolski