“Paradigm Shift?” – I am writing online this morning on my aging notebook, whose battery is failing. Time was when it would hold a charge for two hours, now I am lucky to last thirty minutes. So mostly I keep myself plugged into the mains, and so I thought I was this morning in Camden town at a favoured café with free wifi. Then thirty five minutes into the piece, the screen goes blank. The plug wasn’t in the socket properly I guess. There is nothing to compare with the effect of the totally blank screen, and being brought to a sudden stop; thirty five minutes of occupation killed off in a nanosecond of power failure.
I stop to consider “Paradigm Shift” again, that old gnarled idea for moving back or moving on, and toponomastic inventiveness, like changing the name of a city from Leningrad to St Petersburg, or Pogradec to Perparimi. The latter town is in Albania had its name changed for a time during the second world war when the country was taken over by the Italians and under occupation. Perparimi means “Progress” in Italian by the way. I expect there are many towns and cities in the USA called that too.
I have been in the company of the Polish writer Andrzej Stasiuk in London the last two days. It is he who told me about Pogradec’s name change for instance. He also offers me the consolation, brought to a stop as I was by my power failure, from the time when he was last in Albania, and the power cuts lasted twenty out of twenty four hours. It was a long hot summer, and the waters behind the hydroelectric dams in the north of the country had run dry. So in Pogradec, plugged into the wall or running off an aging notebook battery, total power failure was more or less a permanent fact of life.
In conversation with Andrzej it is as if we are strolling on the Corso together, but it is not Italy, we are doing a passagiata far beyond Trieste to the east. I am reading his book Fado (Dalkey Archive Press 2009*), which is categorized by the publishers as ‘Essay / Travel Writing’. The truth is that the writing belongs to neither of these categories however. The pieces are too short and wandering to be considered essays, mostly about one or two thousand words long, and they are written in a style which is less about travel and more about what happen afterwards, and the uncanny experience when everything has been brought to a stop: challenging, amazing and unfamiliar perspectives, they should of course be called feuilletons.
Thus it is that power failures at this precise moment feel far more relevant in their irreversible way to me than the idea of paradigm shifts, which anyway somehow never actually seem to arrive for us in the here and now.
In the company of Andrzej I do not think I have ever found a companion whose writing shows such a close an affinity to the form and practice of serial dialogue we try to follow here. For instance, another piece in Fado is titled Rudñany. “This is a story of Slovakia” it begins. Rudñany exists, this is no fiction I tell myself, it is a village on the Google maps where I have discovered it for myself. Andrzej tells me of the difficulty he has reaching it, the long drive into the mountains along a narrowing valley past rusting factories, warehouses with broken roofs open to the skies, and overgrown railway tracks. He explains that for seven hundred years the mines at Rudñany provided plentiful supplies of silver, copper and mercury, but the mines were closed a few years ago when the seams of ore finally ran out.
After he finally reaches the village Andrzej describes the community of gypsies living there, literally at the bottom of the abandoned and utterly barren mine pit. It is important to add here that for Andrzej gypsies are people of hope, the nomadic tribe of Europe who for nearly a millennium have always possessed nothing and progressed nowhere. Their population is growing he tells me, soon they will be the majority, and perhaps then they will need their own state, he adds. At a certain point he describes the large concrete square at the centre of the closed up mining village where he has stopped. At this moment for truthfulness sake, I feel I must repeat his exact words: “The square was filled with hundreds of people walking about, stopping, and chatting, as if on the Corso. They had no other occupation and so they were simply spending time with one another. It looked like an allegory of Sunday or of a holiday in general. The crowd was animated, dressed up, colourful, and at the same time listless. No one needed them and so they occupy themselves with each other. They killed time together.”
“I watched them and imagined the future of the world, with its growing numbers of people of whom it will be said that they are simply superfluous, because there is no work for them, there is no room, no prospects, and actually we are closing up shop just now and don’t anticipate reopening. Those who arrive late will have to stand or stroll around and talk for whatever time is still remaining, or for eternity, on a concrete square.”
You may perhaps be surprised to hear that Andrzej is not at all a gloomy companion to be with, nor does he have dystopian beliefs or pronounce terrible prophecies. If I was to ask him about paradigm shifts, I think he would shrug his shoulders and laugh, because the fact is he is entirely indifferent to the West and its economical or any other ways of constructing reality. Post communism, and now post capitalism, power failures matter more to him than paradigm shifts – where walking about, stopping and chatting, as if on the Corso, we have no other occupation.
The nobler journey? Yes, Andrzey says at another moment, it is pilgrimage.
* Fado – and book prize winner, joining the several he has won for othere of his works, but Andrzej’s books, although much is now in translation, do not occupy the interest of the western literary press.