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Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an…

Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist

by Daniel Kalder

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Despite the title, and the printing of the splendidly pretentious "Anti Tourist Manifesto" on the inside cover, Anti Tourism is not Kalder's main theme and it seems as though the Anti Tourist packaging is the idea of the publisher rather than the author. Seeing as apathy seems to be a common state of mind for Kalder throughout his travels in the Russian republics, probably he couldn't be bothered disputing this spin either

Kalder's main idea is to explore parts of the old Soviet Union which are in Europe, but that relatively few Europeans have heard of or visited. Whilst this is a bit of a stretch in the case of Kazan, which gets reasonable numbers of travellers and has some tourist infrastructure, its certainly fair enough in the case of Mari-El, Udmurtia and Kalmykia. And unsurprisingly, he finds there's a very good reason few people go to these places - because there's no reason to go there

Which is the problem with the Anti Tourist approach; I certainly agree that all people are inherently interesting, and in principle all places are worth going to, but if there's little to physically describe about the places you're visiting, and you don't really talk to many people either, then you have to be a better writer than Kalder to make a book like this work. There's only so much you can say about how rundown, bleak, uninspiring and boring the landscape is, how there's nothing to do but go to McDonald's or watch Russian TV, or how to wile away hours of boredom, without boring your reader as well.

Kalder is an amusing writer, and is very good at describing apathy, boredom and disaffection- but ultimately this isn't enough. While I laughed a bit and found out a few things I didn't know, his travels, and this book, ultimately seem a bit pointless. Which is perhaps the point - but I think most of us have probably got better things to do. ( )
  Opinionated | Jan 28, 2012 |
This was a disappointing book considering the interesting subject matter. The author comes over as an unpleasant person who lets his sneering opinions spoil the narrative. ( )
  HeatherPetty | Aug 20, 2009 |
Travelog as metaphysical journey through life. Kalder writes of his travels in the most godforsaken places of the former Soviet Union in a bleak, witty, eye-opening and thought-provoking way. The book is about Kalder's finding his place in life as much as it is about the people he describes and, its a fascinating read, gutsy and brave in its candour.

Some of the vignettes are hilarious - the shaman priest, the dwarf in New York, meeting the paraplegic(?) owner of a mail-order bride company. And, some are very poignant such as the letters from the hopeful mail-order brides who are getting a little too long in the tooth. Some of these stories and tall tales will resonate in my head for quite some time i think.

Highly recommended. ( )
  azfad | Feb 10, 2007 |

Borat's ubiquity has prompted the government of Kazakhstan to stage a counter-offensive, and travel journalists to hike to the Central Asian republic in an effort to discover what it's really like. But this misses the point; Kazakhstan is somewhere between a red herring and a MacGuffin. Borat as we know him evolved from earlier Baron Cohen characters who were Moldovan and Albanian. Borat-speak is actually Hebrew with a smattering of Polish. He could have come from anywhere in the world, provided it was obscure.

The same thinking lies behind Daniel Kalder's travel book, Lost Cosmonaut. Kalder's preface is an abstract of the Shymkent Declarations, which resolve that, among other things: "The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable... The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year... The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art..."

There's a tenuous link with Borat, in that the Shymkent Declarations are named after a town in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan is high-profile, in Kalder's terms; it does, after all, have a seat at the United Nations. We acknowledge its existence, however fleetingly, every four years, when its plucky athletes strut past in the Olympic opning ceremony, and the TV commentator gives us a snippet of trivia about the place.

But Kalder goes where the UN and the Olympics don't. His speciality is seeking those republics that are almost totally autonomous, but are still nominally part of Russia, so aren't quite nations. Tatarstan, historical centre of the Golden Horde; Kalmykia, home of Chess City and the only Buddhist country in Europe; Mari El, hotspot for pagans and internet brides; Udmurtia, where Kalder is pressed to say why he came to such a place, and the best he can come up with is that he likes the name because of its "suggestion of nothingness".

Inevitably, some of Kalder's narrative nudges dangerously close to cheap laughs at the expense of the locals. The "seriously shitty" food in the Sputnik Cafe, where dirt-poor Kalymks take their kids for a treat of gristly meatballs; All Mice Love Cheese, a show for three-year-olds that provides the cultural highlight of the Udmurt State Theater's output; police fail to spot a link when five people within a single square kilometre are decapitated and have their VCRs stolen. A taxi-driver asks Kalder's Japanese companion if he's Yugoslavian. These locals, eh, so dumb and insular, they might as well be... us...

But, like the best travel writers, Kalder's not really writing about these places. He's not even writing about himself, although there's an occasional bout of self-pity and an acknowledgement that he likes films with tits in. He's dealing with something at once bigger and more elusive.

Like Borat, he confronts us with our own ignorance. Those of us brought up during the Cold War still have a tendency to blur the distinction between "Russian" and "Soviet". We can't quite get our heads around the fact that cultural phenomena such as Tofik Bakhramov (the so-called Russian linesman at the 1966 World Cup Final), Olga Korbut and the Chernobyl power station were no more Russian than I'm a Norwegian. (Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine, if you're interested.)

But Kalder goes even deeper than geopolitics. He's at his most profound, and unnerving, when he hovers somewhere over the cusp of national identity and existentialism. "But it is unknown," he muses, "a whole other Europe that might as well not exist for all we Westerners care. In fact, it does not exist for us. They do not exist."

This is Bishop Berkeley territory. If a country suffers, and CNN is not present, does its pain exist? Kalder feels for them. He is, after all, a Scot, another country-but-not-quite. But he knows the best thing he can do is to describe, simply to bring these places into some kind of existence. We might laugh at these hicks, these hillbillies of the Steppes, but isn't that better than being ignored?

Purely accidentally, the publishers manage to express this sense of nowhere, of not-quite-locality, with their North American edition. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, they changed the book's subtitle when it crossed the Atlantic. They also Americanised the spelling and punctuation. But it remains impenetrably British: the experience of consuming Kalmyk tea is described as "like drinking a cup of Bernard Manning's sweat"; Kalder has a Proustian flashback to Littlewood's in Dunfermline. Why will a reader in St Louis be thrown by the diphthong in "faeces" but understand when the author describes something as "shite"? Scribner have founded their own republic, somewhere in the middle of the Pond. But it could never be as bleak and empty and ignored as the places Kalder describes. ( )
  TimFootman | Nov 2, 2006 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0743289943, Paperback)

Daniel Kalder belongs to a unique group: the anti-tourists. Sworn to uphold the mysterious tenets of The Shymkent Declarations, the anti-tourist seeks out the dark, lost zones of our planet, eschewing comfort, embracing hunger and hallucinations, and always traveling at the wrong time of year. In Lost Cosmonaut, Kalder visits locations that most of us don't even know exist -- Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El, and Udmurtia. He loves these places because no one else does, because everyone else passes them by.

A tale of adventure, conversation, boredom, and observation -- occasionally enhanced by an overactive imagination -- Kalder reveals a world of hidden cities, lost rites, mail-order brides, machine guns, mutants, and cold, cold emptiness. In the desert wastelands of Kalmykia, he stumbles upon New Vasyuki, the only city in the world dedicated to chess. In Mari El, home to Europe's last pagan nation, he meets the chief Druid and participates in an ancient rite; while in the bleak industrial badlands of Udmurtia, Kalder searches for Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47, and inadvertently becomes a TV star. An unorthodox mix of extraordinary stories woven together with fascinating history, peculiar places, and even stranger people, Lost Cosmonaut is poetic and profane, hilarious and yet oddly heartwarming, bizarre and even educational. In short, it's the perfect guide to the most alien planet in our cosmos: Earth.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:11:55 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

Lost Cosmonaut documents Daniel Kalder's travels in the bizarre and mysterious worlds of Russia's ethnic republics. Obsessed with a quest he never fully understands, Kalder boldly goes where no man has gone before: in the deserts of Kalmkia, he stumbles upon a city dedicated to chess and a forgotten tribe of Mongols; in Mari El, home to Europe's last pagan nation, he meets the Chief Druid and participates in an ancient rite; while in the bleak industrial badlands of Udmurtia, Kalder looks for Mikhail Kalashnickov, inventor of the AK47, and accidentally becomes a TV star.… (more)

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