Lost Cosmonaut, a darkly humorous, haphazard tour around Russia’s dreariest republics has turned out to be a surprise hit for its author, Daniel Kalder. On a stop off in London between trips to the emptiest corners of the world, the anti-travel travel writer talks to Sarah Crown, the editor of Guardian Unlimited Books, about dead end towns and his search for Mikhail Kalashnikov.
I first encountered Daniel Kalder over a year ago, under extremely odd circumstances.
When an email entitled ‘From Moscow: A Very Unusual Request’ dropped into my inbox in January 2005, my first instinct was to delete it (the phrase “unusual request” shouts spam and scams). The reference to Moscow was just intriguing enough, however, to persuade me to open it, on the off-chance that it might be genuine.
And genuine it was. In a lengthy email, Kalder introduced himself as the author of a forthcoming “anti-travel” book in which he explores four of Russia’s most mysterious ethnic republics. As part of the research for a subsequent book, he explained, he was in the process of applying for a visa for another ex-Soviet republic which is notoriously wary about admitting foreigners. Acting as a barrier to his application, it seemed, was a mention of his name on Guardian Unlimited Books, in a feature on books to look out for in the next year. His “unusual request” was that we help him disappear by removing his name from the article until after his visa was granted. Normally, of course, we wouldn’t dream of tweaking the site to oblige an author, but these were exceptional circumstances. We took down the mention of his name, and a few weeks later Kalder got in touch again to say that his visa request had been granted. He thanked us for our help and promised to send a copy of his book when it came out.
In the year that followed the whole episode slipped from my mind until an envelope from Faber & Faber, containing a beautifully bound green and red book with a drawing of a baffled-looking astronaut clutching a map, appeared in my pigeonhole. Here it was: the anti-travel travelogue Kalder had told me about in his first email.
After the oddness of our original exchange I was expecting the unexpected and I wasn’t disappointed. The tone of Lost Cosmonaut is set on the first page, which consists of an extract from the Shymkent Declarations: the “resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti-Tourists at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent”. “As the world has become smaller,” the declarations begin, “its wonders have diminished … Consequently the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere. 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.” Distancing himself as far as possible from the travel-writing staples of whimsical experiences and quirky locals, Kalder declares that the anti-tourist, among other things, “embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels”, “is interested only in hidden histories, in bad art”, “scorns the bluster and bravado of the daredevil”, and “holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind”.
Kalder then undertakes a haphazard tour of the empty, dreary and practically unheard of—even in Russia—republics of Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia. Sticking faithfully to the spirit of the declarations, he seeks out all that is dull and decaying, and embarks on a series of obscure quests. These include a search for Mikhail Kalashnikov, inventor of the AK47 and Udmurtia’s most famous son, a journey to a city dedicated to chess, and an attempt to remain in his hotel room for the entirety of one leg of his journey on the basis that “I figured no travel writer had ever done it before” (in the event, he lasted about two hours). Cocking a final snook at the traditional travel-writing genre, he also fully embraces the Shymkent Declarations’ final item: “The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.” Readers spend a good part of the book trying to work out which of Kalder’s bizarre tales are fact, and which are elaborate flights of fancy. The statement on the wall of Kazan station, which one of Kalder’s travelling companions, Yoshi, translates as “‘Leave … now … white … devils'” is a case in point.
Kalder had a week in London to publicise Lost Cosmonaut before he was due to disappear off again, so we met for lunch in a pub by the Guardian. Pale, with high cheekbones and long black hair tied back, if I’d run into Kalder on a street in Moscow, I would have assumed he was a local, which presumably made it easier for him to adhere to Shymkent Declaration no 8—”The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility”. A key component of Lost Cosmonaut is Kalder’s confiding, cynical, witty voice and, in person, he is much the same: dryly funny, but happy to talk about the series of unusual events that lead to the book being written.
“I started doing the journeys before I had the idea for the book,” he explains. “Me and Joe [his companion for two of the trips] had been living in Moscow for quite a while, and he had a map of Russia on his wall. We used to sit and look for places that we’d not only never heard of but had no mental image of either. And then we’d go.”
He was 27 when he went to Kalmykia, an age which he describes as “a dark age, especially for young men with no particular skills or qualifications.” After graduating from Edinburgh with a degree in English, and following a brief stint in the Scottish Office during the BSE crisis, during which time he “spent two months mailing out packages to farmers on how to slaughter cows, and answering letters from little girls pleading with us not to kill their cows”, he decided to travel. Moscow was his first stop, and it suited him so well that he ended up living there for nearly a decade. “I did a couple of things,” he remembers, “a bit of journalism for ex-pat newspapers, some tutoring … I was a tutor to a millionaire woman’s children for a while. She owned a town outside of Moscow and she had these psychotic children. The wee boy used to like running around with a hammer smashing things, and no one would stop him. He was five.”
This peripatetic period came to an end when he and Joe came across an article about Chess City, a complex dedicated entirely to chess built by Kirsan Ilumzhinov, the head of the World Chess Federation and the President of Kalmykia. “It blew our minds,” Kalder explains. “Then I found out Kalmykia itself was just an empty wasteland, and I became fascinated by its nothingness. No one in Russia knew where it was: Joe spent two hours phoning travel agents, and they kept telling him it was in another country. When we did go, we had to tell people we were journalists, because they were just baffled by the idea of people coming to visit. The only way to get there was to fly in this really crappy little plane, that looked like a waiting room for death. And when we got there, physically, it was just this endless, empty land. There was nobody there; nothing. It was an absolute void, which is what we were both looking for.”
This sense of emptiness is the thread that ties Lost Cosmonaut together. As the book continues, and Kalder encounters more and more people living out their lives in dead end towns in forgotten provinces, the sense of the vastness of the planet and the corresponding insignificance of everyone in it grows. At the end of the book, there is a passage in which Kalder sums up his disconcertingly nihilistic worldview in typically bracing fashion:
” … regardless of who you are, you certainly don’t matter very much. You might kid yourself you do, but you don’t. The universe is huge and you are a speck of dust. Furthermore, soon you’ll be dead … Not that it’s anything to get upset about. Personally, I think it’s something of a relief.”
“That theme was always there,” he nods, when I read the passage out to him, “but I became more conscious of it as the book went on. That’s why I chose in the end to visit Udmurtia [the final stop on his tour] because the Udmurts basically no longer exist—they’re already assimilated. I put that passage in because I didn’t want people to be able to think ‘I’m not like these folk. They’re losers’. The whole point of the book was to try to bring those people close. I’m from Fife, which is another nothing zone, and a friend said to me when he read the Udmurt section that it sounded like I was a long-lost Udmurt coming to meet his brothers. And I felt pleased that he thought that: I didn’t want to have this fake distance, this fake … ” he hesitates,” … exoticism, that travel-writing can produce.”
Having set out his stall as an anti-tourist, Kalder has no plans to throw in the towel. While waiting for his visa application to be approved last year, he researched another book, Strange Telescopes, which is set in the former Soviet Union and, he tells me, “not about places so much as characters—five oddball characters who created their own realities. I’m quite excited about it. One of them even had a feature written about him in the Guardian: a man called Vissarion who believes he’s Jesus and lives on a mountain in Siberia with 10,000 followers. I met him. And then there’s this other guy who calls himself the King of the Underground and lives in the Moscow sewers, and another one who’s obsessed with exorcisms. It was a year of psychosis. I won’t say too much, because this is the next book, but basically all these guys were very interesting. And really deranged.”
In the wake of Lost Cosmonaut’s beguiling oddness, anything less than deranged would, frankly, be a let down.
Sarah Crown, The Guardian