Review: Lost Cosmonaut

In dust we trust.

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I recall Clive Anderson once bemoaning the fact that any time he tried to drum up a travel commission, that bastard Michael Palin had got there first. As the world becomes smaller and the global village gets a little crowded, where is there left to go?

In Lost Cosmonaut, Daniel Kalder chases a shadow Europe. Abandoning the guidebooks, he visits the black holes, the voids, the places barely on the map in search of these hidden Europeans who, as Kalder himself admits, remain elusive. But, concentrating on four Russian places most Russians have never heard of, he gives it his damnedest shot: Kazan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia. Describing himself as a "conceptualist, a Brian Eno of the travel world" ("I had ideas, but I couldn't play any instruments"), his nihilistic journey is sometimes taken alone, sometimes accompanied by Joe (who "had a gift for attracting interesting and strange people") and Yoshi, and often with large chunks of rest time between each adventure.

The book starts with an anti-tourist manifesto which Kalder adheres to, taking in Mig Mag burgers, and the shabby concrete architecture of our lesser-known neighbours, giving us a potted history of the towns he visits, including an explanation of how Peter the Great's collection of embalmed mutants made the trip from Moscow to Tatarstan. Kalder says: "like many bourgeois Westerners, I like to look at poor foreigners. Unlike many bourgeois Westerners, however, I don't require picturesque settings to offset the poverty." Just as well. The first stop on his trip is Kazan, once a former City of Wonders, that is if you back far enough, to the Middle Ages, say. Its glory was washed away by Ivan the Terrible, but the university once boasted Lenin, Tolstoy and Lobachevsky as students. Modern Kazan doesn't seem to have a lot going for it though; the the State museum has a single Egyptian mummy and a few pens belonging to local poet Musa Jalil. Gang warfare, once ripe in the region, has given way to capitalism.

Kalmykia, meaning 'remnant', is a town formed by part of a left-behind tribe, and was chosen as part of Kalder's trip as he wanted "to see what nowhere looked like." Not only is Elista a city of locked doors and abandoned buildings, but also a place devoid of advertising, an eerie Twilight Zone, with citizens disconnected from the rest of the world and "only the President's face, ..just beyond the city, the eternal, identity-erasing steppe" on which to gaze. And what do you build in the middle of nowhere? If you're the president and into chess, the Olympiad Chess City. Kalder hoped to meet Kirsan Ilumzhinov, a man who claims he was abducted by extra-terrestrials, but the meeting doesn't come off, as he discovers a man named Brian Kennedy robbed him of the chance: "a foreigner working as a language assistant in the university. He had already debased our currency as a piece of exotica. He had ruined my chance to be the President's talking monkey." And to add insult to injury, no matter where you go in the world, it seems Chuck Norris has been there first, posing for a photograph with Ilumzhinov in Chess City.

Another elusive resident, this time of Udmurtia, is Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK-47 automatic assault riffle, who turns down an interview request with a "the word on the street is that you're a cunt" fax. Udmurtia, picked as it echoes the words 'ugly' and 'mud', was the birthplace of Tchaikovsky. In Izhevsk the focal point is a huge ironworks, spewing shit and filth into the air. But that doesn't bother Kalder, who, bereft of much to see or do, tries Udmurt-spotting, an almost impossible task as most have been assimilated. His guide at the local museum, whom he had pegged for a Russian, is one, as is the drunk, and possibly the little boy with red hair and freckles. Yet Kalder remains undeterred no regrets in taking in Izhevsk, a place "crawling with serial killers" with the author's "vague desire to see what kind of city young Russians were dying in".

In Yoshkarola there is little to do but count Lenins and take in an abandoned Ferris Wheel, but it is in this province of Mari El, home of the last true pagans of Europe, where Kalder has the most success. Mediated through a Russian bride service he meets Alexei the Chief Druid, who performs a blessing in the sacred grove, complete with holy juice in a Fanta bottle.

Ultimately, Lost Cosmonaut lacks direction; Kalder never really understands why he is visiting these former Soviet states or what he is doing there other than to observe. Perversely, the strengths of the book are his satirical narrative interludes - ten great Tatars (you've never heard of), ruminations on architecture, nine Kalmyk proverbs, four movie pitches (example titles: Gangs of Kazan, Clans of the Desert), five hidden gems of the red city - less the usual travel writing fodder, something more gritty, an anti-Alan Whicker.

"We always hope our actions have meaning; that we matter. Each one of us stars in the movie of his own life. Alas, nobody's watching. The people of Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El, Udmuria feel this, in their atoms, every second of the day."

[ST]

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Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder
Faber and Faber
224 Pages