Culture

Poor but Sexy by Agata Pyzik – what do you mean, ‘Central Europe’?

by James Allcock

“If your joy is a Joy Division, and you dream to the sound of Depeche Mode, you’ll follow me”.

Agata Pyzik’s catchy title, Poor but Sexy, is taken from Berlin’s mayor, Klaus Wowereit, who wanted to attract income and visitors to his city. Starting her book in Berlin is deliberate: it is “the farthest people go to the east, and then stop”. It therefore represents the middle ground for her discussion: “What does it mean mentally to be from the East? Is the West ‘normality’?”

She magnificently punctures the inflated orientalism, fetishization, and simple know-it-allness from which many Westerners who travel east (myself included) suffer. Her description of the relations between east and west leave much of what’s come before her looking dated and simple. “… until quite recently, scolars had probelms with placing “The East”, which becomes a mythical and phantasmal, rather than geographically accurate place.” The book is a stern talking to for all those who profess an interest in “The East”, but aren’t quite sure what they mean. And despite this being an extremely political book, I wasn’t left, as one is with so many books on the region, with a sense that I’d been given ‘the world according to Pyzik’.

Poor but Sexy Cover ImageWe’re taken on a journey through the bands, books, magazines, TV shows and art that have attempted to understand, explain, or fight against the overwhelming systems that have historically dominated the region, be they Communism, Neo-Liberalism, or something in between: “Our identity took shape in the no man’s lands between a suppressed Slavic spirit and an assimilated Westernness, between rationality and ‘barbarianism'”.

Ostalgia, a yearning for the culture of East Germany, and the awful label of ‘kitsch’ now applied to ex-communist aesethics, is rejected, but Pyzik can turn her critical eye on our own time with as much ease, issuing a withering prognosis: “Between gifs, the hideous layout of social networks and tumblr, rots the corpse of reality”. Equally, the desire to be part of the new, western Europe, is rejected; the picture of the first McDonald’s in Warsaww as “the legends of intellect, writers, and poets, overwhelmed by sitting on plastic chairs”, a damning indictment of love affairs with capitalism. Instead, Pyzik tries carves out a new idea, of a uniquely different eastern Europe, neither an in-between space or a region in transition, but a place in itself.

The only aspect of the book that was challenging in a negative way is that Pyzik suffers from a preoccupation with -isms, which litter every page and are rarely explained. This can be slightly alienating for a less enlightened reader. Similarly frustrating can be the proliferation of complex topics, references, and stories covered in only a few sentences. To truly appreciate this journey requires a substantial media library, and the book’s style is often closer to a video documentary than a novel. However, despite the author acknowledging English being her second language, it is rarely evident, and the writing has a directness and flow, a genuine anger in the rhetoric, a genuine questioning of the received wisdom on eastern Europe, that is refreshingly new and unique.

In her discussion of “Berlin as a capital of Post-DDR melancholia”, Pyzik says that “it’s interesting to what extent the contemporary, supposedly ‘edgy’ youth coming to this parody-of-a-capital, sticks solely to the center … there you can find the typically ahistorical, uprooted relation postmodern man has with history”. What Poor but Sexy does is takes you beyond Kreuzberg, beyond the sanitised post-communist history of the Ryanair in-flight magazine, into a region more complex, unique and genuine than will ever be found in the more traditional, western discussions of eastern Europe.

Poor But Sexy: Culture Clashes In Europe East And West, published by zero books, http://www.zero-books.net, £15.99

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