The Map by Barbara Sadurska | Book Review

The Map by Barbara Sadurska

“The turning point came one day when we were searching the house of someone wed brought in for interrogation. I came across a black and white photograph. On the back, written in pencil, was a place name and a date: April 1940. (…) Women standing in a line on a big square with a well in the middle. Their white bodies. Naked. (…) They’re facing a man in a black overcoat. His eyes are closed, his face turned towards the sun. His white face and the flock of black birds against the cloudless sky. The women are looking at the birds. (…) But the most important element was in the foreground. The bare shoulders and face of my mother. (…) She was standing in line. Naked, her head shaved (…). There were seventy naked women in the photograph, my mother, the man in the black overcoat and the other man in the white coat. Who were they? Do you want to know?”

The Map by the Polish writer, Barbara Sadurska published by the small independent publisher, Terra Librorum has become my favourite read of this year so far and takes a well-deserved place among my old-time favourite books such as The Book of Disquiet by Fernando Pessoa, The World of Yesterday by Stefan Zweig, The Last Summer of Reason by Tahar Djaout, prose by Patrick Modiano, Clarice Lispector, Albert Camus, Elif Shafak, Naguib Mahfouz, W.G. Sebald or Orhan Pamuk.  

The Map is a collection of seven stories connected by one object, the Map along with a number of various artifacts. Barbara Sadurska has demonstrated in her book an extraordinary ability to present the complexities and nuances of the human existence. The Map offers the interpretation of the world like no other book I have recently read. This is a wonderful literary achievement delivered in the fascinating style that deserves more recognition.

The Map provides the combination of brutalist eloquent prose and oneiric poetry, with a skillful usage of flashbacks, unfinished sentences and understatements. This is Literature with a capital L! The Map by Barbara Sadurska has absorbed me totally. Stories weaved by the author have touched me profoundly.

This is not only an excellent book, but also the unquestionable literary artistry one can expect from the writer. The art of storytelling appears on every page of The Map, outlining the complexities and intricacies of the humankind.

The Map is like a puzzle; it must be read in the reference to history and cultural events. The reader is taken on an intriguing voyage through centuries and diverse lands of Europe and must make sense of the snapshots of history and slices of lives presented in the book. There are countless layers of meanings in The Map to uncover, and so many subtle details that can be easily missed on the first reading. The Map will be interpreted differently by every reader depending on how one is conditioned by their own previous experiences and their understanding of history.

The essence of The Map by Barbara Sadurska is an exploration of human nature, its evil side. Times pass, new people come along but human nature remains the same, people are still subject to acting on its darkest and primal instincts. The Map offers bitter, unfiltered truths about ourselves, and the ugly vision of the world. The eponymous map is a link between people and generations, it goes from one person to another, often to random people influencing their destiny in some way and it imprints its mark on their existence.

Barbara Sadurska takes us on a journey through the meanders of human life. We learn about the fate of people living in different countries and during different times. Often the only connection between these individuals is the fact that they once were the owners of the map. Also, the impact of coincidence on one’s life is somehow indirectly explored throughout the stories.

What is the Map? The Map dates back to “sometime in the fifteenth century [1455], a map drawn in gold shavings (…) drawn by an unparalleled cartographer [Fra Mauro, patron of those who have lost their way] who had been banished to a Camaldolese monastery [in southern Italy] and spent the rest of his life far way from everything he loved.”

To some protagonists in the stories the title map portrays “the world accessible only to sailors and travellers, troublemakers and outlaws condemned to eternal exile.” Gazing at the map make some individuals feel that “it [is] all emptiness. There is nothing to fight for. All is lost.” Some protagonists with an interest in this map carry “hell inside” them.  For some this is “the map of a non-existent city”.  For others “the map leads to the gates of hell (…), that shows the entrance to the first circle of hell”. Many spend their entire life searching for this map. In some sense this might be the map of the entire world, of the entire humanity. This is the object which awakens the worst in people, including the most evil forms of cruelty and understanding of humanity. The map is a binder of human fate, it is a point of reference or rather a sum of many points of reference placed on the map by the successive generations throughout the centuries. In some way the map should serve as a form of lesson for the future generations, but not always the next generation can draw conclusions from those lessons.

In Barbara Sadurska’s stories there is a multitude of characters, real historical figures and imaginary. We witness a skillful use of history and its impact on the present-day and on the lives of the ordinary people in the following decades and centuries. We are presented with a variety of events across the centuries of humanity. At the same there is no clear chronology. There are many silences and unspoken words. The readers must use their imaginative and interpretive skills to make sense of words.

There are many references to cities in Poland like Bydgoszcz, Zamosc, Krakow, cities in Germany like Heidelberg, in Netherlands, Italy, and Belgium, East Germany during communism regime, the former Yugoslavia, Hungary, Poland during the communist era as well as the very contemporary Poland, Sarajevo, the war in Bosnia and Herzegovina in 1990s, the Srebrenica genocide.

Other references include: the events from the Inquisition form the 17th century, the Inquisitor known for his cruelty who spent his final years in the monastery. The role of the Catholic Church seems to be explored subtlety throughout the book, especially its role in creating ‘hell’ and being complicit in helping those who were responsible for the most heinous acts including the Inquisition as well as WW2, the Holocaust and the aftermath.

We learn about people being discarded after the old regimes collapse and the political system change along with the map of the world changing its outlines, but the human nature remains the same.

The hugely fundamental aspect of these stories connects to the Holocaust, mass killings of civil population including children and women as well as medical experiments on the pregnant women. There are references to the events from 1439, 1492, 1515, 1680, 1880 concluding that it was the same person committed the atrocious acts of cruelty across the centuries or at least the same human nature. There is the Communist investigator, himself responsible for torture who is on the quest to find the man responsible for his mother’s disappearance and her deportation order during WW2. The investigator is the murderous bureaucrat himself within the Communist apparatus. There are mothers who disappear after leaving for work, fathers who are taken away and executed next day.

The theme of the perception of the most heinous acts in the human history is also explored at length when the role of bookkeeper at the Nazi concentration camp is discussed in one of the stories.

The symbolism of black colour is prevalent throughout The Map. There is a reference to the psychiatric hospital where “the system of stairs and lifts was rather complicated for visitors”.

There are references to Faust painted by Rembrandt, writings in German and rustic Slavic language. The ethnic and cultural diversity and richness of Central and Eastern Europe is demonstrated in the foreground of every story.

The meaning of maps, documents, photographs and testaments constitutes one of the cores of the book’s essence. These objects are used to reconstruct the past, to understand the human nature and to read realities – the objects like the map are fragments of the past, in some sense, they are portable memories. The parchment on which the map was drawn is a bit like the human body, “giving shape to the stories of the sailors, travellers, troublemakers and murderers”.

Ultimately, The Map by Barbara Sadurska is the complex, multilayered exploration of human nature. Reading this book has been one of the best reading experiences. I will end with these words from the book which contain the summary of the unchanged human nature:

“When (…) on a Sunday morning, they shot some people against the walls of the Jesuit church. (…) When they shot my father, when they shot, and I stood and watched, because one group of people was shooting another and it didn’t matter who was shooting whom, because it’s only ever people shooting people.”

I highly recommend The Map by Barbara Sadurska. It is a challenging and nuanced read but it is worth spending time with this extraordinary book.
Well done Terra Librorom for introducing this book to the English-speaking audience. I look forward to more contemporary books from Poland as well as other Central and Eastern European countries.

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    1. Thank you so much! Such an unusual book. Challenging and demanding for the reader but very interesting! I could not get into it but then I could not stop reading it😛🤍🙏 I really enjoy it but I would have to reread it one day.

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