One small Steppe
Daniel Kalder is a shadowy figure, pale and slight. He warns me that he will be wearing black, that he has a beard and a long ponytail. I spot him instantly in the Edinburgh cafe where we have arranged to meet. It would be different, says the 31-year-old writer, if we were in Moscow, where he has lived for the past 10 years. There, he passes for Russian and is just another face in the crowd, which suits him because he dislikes being noticed. Indeed, Dunfermline-born Kalder has a Slavic cast of feature, which he acknowledges helps him to adopt a cloak of invisibility. Much as he may dislike being noticed, he is about to receive a great deal of attention with the publication of his unusual first book, Lost Cosmonaut, a scabrous, mordantly funny yet deeply affecting work, written in fragmentary, collage-like style, that is the antithesis of every travel book I’ve ever read.
Kalder, the third of four sons, has returned to Scotland to see his parents—his father is a retired engineer, his mother a housewife. Soon, he will hit the publicity circuit to promote Lost Cosmonaut, which documents his travels and travails in the black holes and grim urban black spots of Russia’s ethnic republics, namely Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.
A graduate of Edinburgh University, where he read English Literature, Kalder sets out his stall on the first page: “As the world has become smaller so its wonders have diminished. There is nothing amazing about the Taj Mahal, the Great Wall of China or the pyramids of Egypt. They are as banal as the face of a cornflakes packet.
“Consequently, the true unknown frontiers lie elsewhere… The duty of the traveller, of the voyager is to open up new zones of experience… all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid. The only true voyagers, therefore, are anti-tourists.”
So as anti-tourists, he and his mate Joe and Joe’s Japanese friend, Yoshi, a photographer, depart for Tatarstan, eschewing comfort, embracing hunger and hallucinations and decrepit hotels, seeking locked doors and demolished buildings, and cherishing the belief that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.
In Tatarstan, Kalder reads about Kazan, the capital city, once a world of philosophers, traders, minarets and dark-eyed beauties—a jewelled city, of mysteries, incense-filled rooms, hidden corners, of cruelty and beauty, of darkness and enlightenment. The reality is a bleak place where the trio breakfast on Royal Cheeseburgers and Coke tasting of chemicals at the inevitable McDonald’s in a city of pitiful squalor.
“If the Kazan of old existed today, it would be a dilapidated heap, or a sterile heritage centre, an empty shell that existed for tourists only, insipid and dull, like Prague,” says Kalder, who discovered an entire city dedicated to chess in Kalmykia, a forgotten Mongol tribe, and Europe’s last pagan nation in Mari El, where he became friendly with the Chief Druid and took part in an ancient rite. Finally, in Udmurtia, he embarked on a hilarious search for Mikhail Kalashnikov, “the genius of death” and inventor of the AK-47 assault rifle.
THE BOOK ENDS with Kalder, who has a sharp eye for the weird and wonderful and a dark obsession with the fantastically freakish, accidentally becoming a TV star—”briefly famous in an obscure province of a crumbling empire”. When he is recognised in the street, he knows his travels are over.
But Kalder’s journeys have only just begun. Lost Cosmonaut may be his first book, but he has just finished researching his second, Strange Telescope, also about his travels in Russia and Ukraine. It is about five bizarre characters who create their own realities, such as the guy who lives in the sewers of Moscow and another who is obsessed with exorcisms. Then there is the man who built a wooden skyscraper.
He has also fixed on an idea for his third book, if he can get a visa to somewhere I have sworn I will not mention lest I scupper his chances. This year he will move to Austin, Texas, for a while to soak up some new experiences.
He will eventually return to Moscow, though. He feels at home there as only someone from Dunfermline would, he adds. There is something about Moscow’s untempered extremes, its perverse anarchy and its extreme beauty that appeals to him. Anyway, at 22, he was bored with life in Dunfermline and wanted to go somewhere that was “big and alien and that would push me”.
After graduating, Kalder worked briefly in the civil service in Edinburgh. “An excruciatingly dull job,” he says. He was a lowly stamp-licker in the BSE crisis unit. “They were slaughtering millions of cows and we got letters from children pleading with us not to kill the cows—it was my job to reply.”
He has written all his life and was BBC Scotland’s young poet of the year at the age of 20 after writing only one poem—he hasn’t written another since, apart from a few haikus. “That was a dead end, though. I guess you have to suffer a bit in order to write,” he says.
However, he has taken heart from Guy de Maupassant’s revelation that he practised writing for 10 years before publishing his first book at the age of 30. In Moscow, Kalder survived—”even thrived”—by doing journalism “for really rubbish newspapers for expats” and worked as a tutor for a female billionaire’s dysfunctional children.
“She owned a whole satellite town outside Moscow, but her three children were psychologically damaged. The wee boy was semi-feral. He would run around the flat smashing things after being given a hammer by the servants. The kids had millions of tutors and psychologists. Then the family vanished—they went into hiding for some reason. But that’s Moscow. The reality’s always pretty extreme. It’s like you’ve fallen into a parallel universe.”
Being a foreigner, though, meant Kalder could gain access to anyone he wanted to meet in the late 1990s. “It didn’t matter how scabby I looked—and I can look dead scabby. I could get into any restaurant and sit with these cocaine-sniffing millionaires. It wasn’t Dunfermline, that’s for sure. There I would have met only glue-sniffers.”
Towards the end of Lost Cosmonaut, Kalder writes: “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, Udmurtia feel this, in their atoms, every second of the day.”
When I quote this passage, it reminds him of his agent’s reaction on first reading his finished manuscript. “She said she was left with an overwhelming impression of nothingness,” Kalder says. “Which was kind of the point. So I felt happy about that. I’d succeeded in what I set out to do, write a travel book about nothingness and about wastelands. Within 24 hours it was picked up by Faber—and that really blew my mind.”
Jackie McGlone, Scotland On Sunday