A Place In The Slum: An interview with Daniel Kalder
“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 loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.”
It is with these maxims that Daniel Kalder inaugurates a new type of travel writing. His book Lost Cosmonaut (Faber 2006) is ostensibly a travelogue of the ethnic republics of Russia’s vast steppes in which he visits the industrial black spots of Udmurtia, the collapsing capital of Tatarstan and Kalmykia, the only Buddhist territory in Europe. The destinations are so far from the beaten track that most people have never heard of them, and this is entirely the point: the book is also a manifesto for anti-tourism. Anti-tourism takes as its basic premise the ultimate vacuity of the packaged tourist experience. In trying to make holiday experiences comfortable, accessible and most importantly, uniformly enjoyable, tourism firms end up making these experiences banal: “As the world has become smaller,” writes the author, “so its wonders have diminished.”
For Kalder the true traveller is one who treads a stranger road: “In our over-explored world there must of necessity be wastelands, black holes, and grim urban blackspots, all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid.” On his travels he encounters, as one might expect, poverty, boredom and awful architecture, but he also discovers things that are bizarre and wonderful. In Mari El he meets two severely disabled brothers who run a mail-order bride agency. They in turn introduce him to a druid priest, with whom Kalder performs an ancient(-ish) rite, and then accidentally assaults with a holy staff. Stranger still, he discovers a city dedicated to chess in the wilds of Kalmykia, a legacy of the chess-obsessed president who is also, bizarrely, president of the World Chess Federation. Amidst extreme dullness, Kalder shows, there are also treasures. And more extreme dullness of course, but then that’s the nature of anti-tourism.
In this interview, Kalder speaks to Spoiled Ink about his strange travels. We find out what motivates the anti-tourist, discover the cultural significance of the Mig Mag burger and also hear about a mysterious individual called Brian.
- What prompted you to become a writer? Was this intention behind your relocation to Moscow?
I had written stories since childhood and several of my teachers spotted my ability and suggested I become a writer when I was older. But when I grew up I realised that this was an impossible dream and that I should get a job in an office like everyone else. But the office job made me ill, so I left for Moscow to seek adventure and ponder evil instead. After five or six years of that I had no qualifications or job skills to speak of. A future working in Halford’s beckoned.
I was still writing, but had never made an attempt at getting published. I realised I would always regret it if I didn’t make a good stab at it before disillusionment set in absolutely. And so I came up with Lost Cosmonaut. I just needed to have my back against the wall to force me to take the risk and invest the considerable amount of time and energy required to produce a book.
- Throughout Lost Cosmonaut you question your own status as a writer: when conducting interviews you are sometimes ‘writing a book,’ sometimes you are ‘a journalist.’ I’m probably supposed to ask you which of these you think you are, but in actual fact I’m more interested in which guise you found most useful
Being a journalist is like having a magic key that opens many doors. I walked into Maxim’s marriage agency and suddenly he agreed to speak to me, as did Alexei the pagan priest, as did so many others, though they knew nothing about me. I just said ‘I’m a journalist’ and they opened up. Journalists are more common than writers and you don’t have to do much to prove yourself, as nobody expects you to be especially clever or talented.
On the other hand, very often journalists are neither trusted nor respected. Writers go deeper, writers have more authority. People are more flattered if they are talking to a writer, but also more intimidated, at least in Russia, where they are still semi-revered as prophets. One big advantage: nobody knows how to make a writer prove his identity, so you can avoid tricky questions if you operate under that guise.
Sometimes, though, it’s better to be neither.
- You state at the beginning of the second half of Lost Cosmonaut that you doubt you’ll every get it published. Happily, you have, but was this an easy process? How does one pitch a book about anti-tourism?
After going to Kalmykia I wrote a couple of chapters and sent them out to the big agents in London, figuring that I’d start at the top and work my way down. An agent at Curtis Brown expressed interest, but made no commitment. That was enough encouragement for me, however. I went to Mari El and Udmurtia & resumed writing. Meanwhile the book mutated radically, acquiring a whole new structure and a lot of the bizarre stuff you see in it today. I started to get worried: my book was a travelogue, yes, but it also incorporated elements of memoir, reportage, history, dream, satire, and surrealism—all seasoned with profane comedy and irony. How was I to pitch this?
It can fatally wound a book’s chances if it’s read in the wrong light, so I thought I’d give the editors some help. I wrote the preface and anti-tourist manifesto to warn them that this was an entirely different sort of travel book from what they were used to. And so in actual fact, anti-tourism was the pitch, promising a new approach to the familiar while simultaneously bringing the unfamiliar closer. I elaborated on this in the proposal.
Even so, I fully expected to receive 40 rejections before settling for an edition of 300 with Rotting Dog Press, which would immediately go bankrupt. But my agent knew exactly which editor to send it to. Lost Cosmonaut was snapped up by Faber in 24 hours. Both of us were astonished.
- What motivates anti-tourism? Has lazy, gap-year familiarity with pre-packaged notions of the exotic turned travel into an exercise in box ticking? An obligatory grand tour to offset the ennui of the forthcoming lifetime of office drudgery?
I like wastelands, death, decay, boredom, sadness, freaks, mutants, psychosis, circuses, secret histories, wax museums, and much else of that ilk. I am interested in the rejected, the despised, and the ridiculous. So when I travel I like to visit places that enable me to pursue these interests.
But travel, of course, is many things to different people. Some may dig ticking boxes, and good for them. I ask only that they keep this enthusiasm to themselves and don’t try to share it with me.
- Could a trip to Izhevsk and a burger in Mig Mag be considered a more worthwhile experience than, say, visiting Angkor Wat?
I suppose that people who visit Angkor Wat are after the thrill of contact with a lost past, with an alien civilisation, or to be awed by beauty. Or maybe they’re not after mystery at all, but simply want to see the thing that looks really cool in the photo in the guidebook. Or maybe not even that: they’re in Cambodia and need something to do.
A trip to Mig Mag on the other hand is about connecting with the present. In that rotten burger there is much truth about the hopes and aspirations of our living & breathing brothers and sisters. They are humbler than those of the architects who build great temples: simply a desire to live, to be young, and to have nice things. In the West this is considered our birthright; but for the people in Izhevsk, it is a great struggle, and it is one they are engaged in now, even as you read this.
- In your travels through Tatarstan, Kalmykia, the Republic of Mari El and Udmurtia, you appear to spend much of the time not knowing what you’re doing or why you’re doing it. In fact, existential crises become your modus operandi. This makes me realise that a lot of tourist ‘activities’ are really just there to avert angst in the holidaymaker who in reality is just wandering around looking at stuff and spending money. Or is this just too cynical?
See above. I know I’ve been there, so if you feel that way too, that makes at least two of us.
- Eighteenth and nineteenth century travellers on their grand tour would often dig up, kill or post back to the British Museum anything they saw of interest. Have you any treasured items from your jaunts?
Nice question. In Elista I bought a cassette called ‘Singing Kalmykia 2000’ which features such classics as ‘Elista Waltz’, ‘Song About Elista’ and of course, the unbeatable ‘Chess City Song’. I also tried to buy a chess set in Chess City itself, but the souvenir shop didn’t have one. In Udmurtia I found a very cool robot with flashing eyes and I also bought a Soviet propaganda leaflet from an Afghan war vet. It had a picture of children handing flowers to soldiers in a tank, who were surrounded by a circle of flowers. Mari El provided little, though I was pleased to receive a chunk of the Chief Druid’s flesh. It flew from his nose after I whacked him in the face with his Holy Staff, landing in the snow at my feet. I pocketed it before he could notice.
- Having visited Kazan, capital of Tatarstan, you describe in detail the rich cultural history of this gateway between Europe and the east, evoking the dreaming minaret spires and bustling bazaars, the philosophers and traders. You then say you’re glad Ivan the Terrible destroyed it all. Why does this bother you less than the fact that the ten best-known Tatars are virtually unheard of in the west?
Just kidding about the Druid’s flesh, by the way. As for your question: these are two separate phenomena. I am able to evoke the glories of ancient Kazan precisely because it was destroyed. Like the library at Alexandria, it thus became myth, legend, dream. The Tatar pantheon on the other hand still exists, but is located in what, for Westerners, may as well be a parallel dimension. It is possible to cross through and read or listen to these works, even if very few of us choose to do so.
- In Elista, capital of Kalymykia, you discover president Kirsan Ilumzhinov’s outrageous Chess City—a modern folly that makes the Millenium Dome look like a roaring financial success. What would you have liked asked president Ilumzhinov had you been allowed to meet him?
Basically I would have hung out with him for as long as possible and listened to whatever stories he wanted to tell me. I think the antagonistic style of interview you see on many news programmes is essentially a Punch & Judy show: entertaining, but crude. People reveal much more about themselves if you are sympathetic and let them talk. I would have asked about his childhood in the steppe, his famous ancestors (Ilumzhinov’s grandfather was a Bolshevik hero), his love of chess and tried to get some funny details about his meetings with famous folk like Richard Gere, the Dalai Lama and Chuck Norris.
- Whilst researching the pagan beliefs of an obscure branch of the Finno-Ugric group, you meet a High Priest of the Chi Mari who tells you he’s never heard of Scotland. How did this make you feel? A salutary experience for the modern traveller?
It didn’t surprise me. People who were educated in the Soviet Union often have a very hazy idea of the UK. For them England = Great Britain, and as for the other parts (whatever they’re called), well if they’re in Great Britain, then they must be England too.
- You visit Udmurtia, enticed by the idea of a native culture that has been all but completely assimilated by the culture surrounding it. Being born in Scotland, a nation that has fiercely protected its own cultural heritage since the Roman invasion, how do you feel about the sanctity of your own national identity?
I’m glad I was born Scottish, but I’m also glad to be British, and, in the widest sense, European. I am made aware of all these identities when I travel; I have an insider’s access to three closely interlinked heritages. This is good.
- Your travels spur you to have lots of thoughts that run contrary to what we could call progressive western liberalism. You muse upon the usefulness of this idea of cultural authenticity—is it really that useful, or even important when you can’t feed the kids, or send them to school? Is having no commercial advertising (as in Elista) really that great? Is moaning about McDonalds outlets springing up in the benighted industrial cities of the Russian steppes really appropriate when none of the inhabitants of said cities have ever heard of a latte? What have your experiences taught you about the anti-globalisation debate?
It’s easy for people in the West: we are already rich, we have everything we need. But I can imagine that if you live in a polluted Siberian dump like Magnitogorsk, the Golden Arches might shine like a beacon of progress and a DVD of X Men II could help pass the time nicely. What are these people supposed to do? Eat Borsch, sing folk songs and watch Tarkovsky movies? For whose benefit? We in the West are keen consumers of ‘global’ culture, be it a Tarantino film or a piece of furniture from IKEA, so we can hardly be shocked if people in Russia or elsewhere express a desire for the same trash/comforts. Meanwhile, this desire hasn’t made Russia any less Russian. The Russian film industry is undergoing a renaissance, Russian pop music remains as awful as it always has been, Moscow is awash with a new wave of restaurants selling reasonable quality Russian and Ukrainian food, and the Russian government is still selling nuclear technology to dodgy regimes. I’m sure other countries are resolving these challenges in their own ways also.
- In the light of your experiences whilst researching and writing this book, what do you think the idea of Europe as an entity means to the people of Kazan, or Elista?
Having spent much of their history in the belly of the Russian whale, which in turn has spent much of its history isolated from Europe, it is entirely foreign. In my experience: geographically it’s the place people would like to visit on holiday once they’ve got enough money saved. Culturally it’s the source of the languages they learned in high school and some of the novels they studied. Some ambitious students hope to attend university in a European city. But if you’re talking about the EU, then it means practically nothing at all except as the source of occasional lectures on Chechnya, and the euro, which is much less popular than the dollar. I once met a guy who worked for the EU’s ‘TACIS’ aid programmes in Russia (which were recently found guilty of squandering several billion on useless projects by an internal audit): even he calculated everything in dollars.
- In Kalmykia you are aggrieved to discover that a mysterious Irishman called Brian Kennedy has preceded you. In fact Brian, or at least the idea of Brian starts to haunt you. Did you ever get to meet him?
No, and I’m glad. There are some doors we should never open, and some hands we should never shake. I prefer Brian Kennedy to remain a mystery: he’s much more interesting that way.
- Will your adventures in anti-tourism continue? Where next?
I am always in pursuit of new anti tourist experiences. Just recently I visited a town where the entire centre was abandoned except for a shop selling the sad junk that is left when all the desirable junk has been spirited away. For example: there was a plastic cup on sale with the year ‘1973’ written on it. A spider was shitting in it. Or at least that’s what it looked like to me.
Meanwhile I am writing the follow up to Lost Cosmonaut. It’s called Strange Telescopes and is about some remarkable people who are creating their own realities in the wastelands of the former Soviet Union—trying to bring them out of their heads and into the real world, as it were. This involved me crawling around in the sewers of Moscow, witnessing exorcisms in Ukraine, sitting in the besieged bunkers of radical politicians and climbing a Siberian mountain to meet a man who believes he is Christ. Hopefully it will provide people with an interesting read: I had a fascinating time researching it.
Sean Merrigan, Spoiled Ink