I recently got to thinking about the difference between a blogger and a journalist. It’s a terrible subject so I only thought about it for a few seconds before I settled on, “journalists are paid.” But now I’ve found another difference: Bloggers can write reviews of books that were published 4 years ago. Which kinda throws a wrench in the CW…
I don’t read many travel narratives. I went through a phase where I collected them, but I could never get past the first chapter before deciding I not only knew how the story ends, but I’m pretty sure the author was that jerk I used to see in the stolovaya being all chummy with the scary abacus lady or that girl with the overwhelming goodness and lack of personality particular to a breed of Western girls studying in Russia. I even wrote one too. Because when something deranged happens every day of your life, you have to write about it. Like vomiting to avoid alcohol poisoning. The problem is this: the same deranged things happen to everyone who writes these books. It’s all new to the author of course, but not to anyone who has already read a travel narrative, personal memoir or pseudo-autobiographical novel about Russia by a Westerner. So I passed by Daniel Kalder’s Lost Cosmonaut repeatedly until the day came when I’d read all the other books in that section of the local library, except Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Diary which I don’t think I could bear. (A typo just gave me brilliant idea for a children’s book: “Anna Politkovskaya’s Russian Dairy”.) Also, I am not crazy interested in Udmurtia or Kazan. What’s going on there? Nothing.
A co-worker of mine and I were laughing today at the crazy synopses people put in WorldCat records. “Epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything.” Ok, that’s helpful.
Lost Cosmonaut is an epic masterpiece that is about nothing and everything. Specifically as nothing and everything is experienced by a noncoformist Scot in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.
If you are interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because not much in English is written about them and you don’t have a choice. If you are not interested in Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia you should probably read this because it’s not really very informative about these places anyway. You could be reading about anywhere. Or nowhere. Which is the point.
Kalder sets off with a mission to introduce the world to forgotten an unknown peoples and places. It begins with a manifesto:
From THE SHYMKENT DECLARATIONS
(Excerpts from the resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti- Tourists
at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent, Kazakhstan, October 1999)
As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing
amazing about the Great Wall of China, the Taj Mahal, or the Pyramids of Egypt. They
are as banal and familiar as the face of a Cornflakes Packet.
Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere.
The duty of the traveller therefore is to open up new zones of experience. In our over
explored world these must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban
blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.
The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti- tourists. Following this logic we declare that:
The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable.
The anti-tourist eschews comfort.
The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.
The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.
The anti-tourist scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil, who attempts to
penetrate danger zones such as Afghanistan. The only thing that lies behind this is
vanity and a desire to brag.
The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.
The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.
The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.
The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.
The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.
The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.
The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.
The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.
At one point Kalder quotes the end of Gogol’s Dead Souls and answers the question of what lay ahead for Russia: “poor people and junk.” If the moral of the story were that every provincial Russian city is miserable in the same way (general disrepair, awful weather, egomaniacal leader, Stalinist factory, ethnic population with little or no recollection of their heritage as a result of centuries of occupation and systematic assimilation, dive hotel where the rooms are outfitted with radios you can’t turn off and no hot water, fat American men trawling for wives, Brezhnev era apartment blocks, depressing cafe and nightclub …) well, I’d have gotten through the first chapter and decided I knew how the story ends. Been there. Done that. The names were different (Pskov, Uglich, Suzdal…) but I’ve experienced the radio you can’t turn off and it is particular hell that cannot be underestimated. And I’m pretty sure the most depressing cafe in the universe is in Uglich. But that wasn’t the moral of the story. And I wasn’t prepared for the ending.
At times Kalder is a kamikaze thrill seeker, presenting his surroundings the world with all the grace and humility of an eXile deathporn spread. He’s really into Peter the Great’s collection of preserved mutant babies and Ilyumzhinov’s egomania. Russia is cruel and psycho. Lick it up baby, lick it up.
Then he gets really existential about the psychological effect of living in a place the rest of the world does not know exists. He muses that globalization makes life easier. We see an for McDonalds, Pepsi, Mercedes and are immediately connected to everyone else who has seen those ads. A man in London is eating the same cheeseburger as a man in Houston. They are not alone. Anyone who’s been in Russia or other Commie’d out countries when there were no or few corporate ads has understood this. All those nameless remont chasovs can really become unsettling. When you only have uniquely named stores in your town, when the billboards only advertize your local dictator, you are estranged from the rest of the world. Or something.
Realizing there is nothing shocking to see in these outposts he becomes obsessed with the nothingness, the boredom, the profound insignificance of his surroundings. Zen-like. (The combined fascination with the grotesque and the mundane leaves the reader feeling a little psychotic.) Eventually he does give himself completely over. But not to the nothingness. Or the freakishness. But to things as they are. To the efforts people make, the dignity they maintain, when dealt a mediocre deck. Nothing exclusively Russian about that. Except that Russians are perhaps more honest and upfront about their crap deck than rest of us. No sense in pretending about it.
There are many things I really liked about this book. The gonzo journalist tone is reminiscent of the eXile, which I really miss. He’s a pretty good and funny writer. Who happens to be interested in something that interests me. It is also endearing to watch someone else go through the stages of grief people with souls tend to go through when they try to get to know Russia. Like me. In fact, I have many selfish reasons for loving this book. The most obnoxious being that Kalder reminds me of this strange boy from college I hung out with for a year. Anyway. Kalder makes a lot of lists, which I too enjoy. Lists. He takes photos of random stuff and calls it “The Secret History of the World” – photodocumentation of things others walk past and never see. I liked that. He makes up entire scenes as if briefly lost in reverie while writing. He can be irreverently crass but it’s not an act, nor is the painfully sweet and beautiful observations he makes about things most people don’t notice. A little girl he catches a glimpse of in a dank cafe with her mother whose entire life he manages to invest himself in emotionally before she leaves – vanished forever. A self-promoting pagan preist who just makes up everything and even has a shrine to himself, but whom Kalder defends as not a fraud or a loser but just like the rest of us, making it up as we go along, seeking fame, trying to give some meaning and staying power to our unnoticed lives. Instead of getting angry at one local authority whom he expects to set him up with important people but can only get him a meeting with a local museum tour guide or theater director, Kalder thinks, well, he did his job, they did theirs, they don’t owe me anything beyond that. They didn’t even owe me that.
At the end, a tv anchor asks him what’s wrong with Russia. “Look around! It’s terrible. Other countries are not like this. Why is Russia like this?” She’s clearly not happy with the state of affairs. That’s for someone else to discuss, Kalder thinks. Let someone else make a profound appeal for democracy. From their warm safe lives in the West. Experts making profound appeals for democracy are a dime a dozen. Fuck them.
I really liked that last bit.