Monday 3rd November
I did not know that I was famous when I arrived in Poland, and as I spent the first couple of days probing the remote borderlands and discussing John Denver in broken Russian with the celebrated Polish author Andrzej Stasiuk. I had no way of finding out. I only started to suspect something was up when I arrived at the New Theatre in Lodz for the first stop on my book tour. TV people were waiting for me in the lobby. ‘What for?’ I blurted out. ‘An interview, of course…’ Stasiuk then declared to the sold-out theatre that Lost Cosmonaut was the best book ever written about Russia, before modifying the claim slightly: ‘…or in the last couple of decades, at least.’ He was quite serious. Then he revealed that he had just returned from Siberia, and raged at the Russians for colonizing his soul with their boredom. What emerged from our discussion was a detailed dissection of boredom and life on the periphery, and as I took questions from the audience I realized that they all felt that my book described their lives, even if it was ostensibly about Russia (although one Russian saboteur in the audience railed at me for grossly maligning her motherland). Four or five interviews later I left with appeals to write a book about Lodz ringing in my ears: ‘It’s a real void here,’ said the interviewer from Radio Lodz, ‘…perfect for an anti-tourist like you.’
Tuesday 4th November
Arriving at the central station in Warsaw my translator (who I share with Thomas Pynchon and David Foster Wallace) tried to explain my startling success in Poland: ‘Poles may hate Russia but for us it’s still a great subject which must be approached on our knees. But Lost Cosmonaut is something completely new: you’re just incredibly arrogant!’ That was a compliment. ‘Of course, we have a great tradition of reportage, like Kapuscinski. Maybe you have read his Imperium, but that book is naïve compared to yours, with your irony, black humour, clandestine references…’
I was speechless. Fortunately I didn’t have to compose a response, as I had four interviews to do back to back, followed by a ‘literary meeting’. It was sold out again, but this time the moderator’s questions were totally banal, and at the end I was verbally assaulted by a Polish anthropologist and an enraged Russian with a majestic moustache both of whom accused me of Western colonialism.
Wednesday 5th November
My next stop was an avant-garde theatre in Lublin where I spoke to a smaller crowd (the organizers blamed a Czech folksinger in town the same night for siphoning off my audience) and only did one radio interview. Afterwards a young man came up to me with a copy of the book for signing, but the cover was different. He explained that he loved it so much he had designed a new dust jacket, and then showed me the flyers he had made to evangelize on my behalf. His design was better by far than that of any of the five editions of Lost Cosmonaut thus far. I also heard for the third or fourth time about a writer named Jacek Hugo-Bader who many Poles felt was my spiritual brother: he had travelled around Central Asia on a bicycle apparently. I was rather insulted as I can’t stomach novelty travelogues about dribbling cretins in Trabants and milk floats, but I was reassured that his was a great work dedicated to preserving the memory of rapidly vanishing worlds. I’d like to read this Hugo-Bader, but it is of course highly unlikely anyone in the insular and cowardly world of British publishing will ever take him on…
Thursday 6th November
The final stop on my tour was Krakow. I had now been in the morning papers three days in a row, and assumed I had probably spoken to every media outlet there was. However more radio, print and TV journalists were waiting for me in Poland’s beautiful if mildly poncy cultural capital. The moderator of this last sold-out event was a celebrated Catholic poet who asked me alarmingly sophisticated questions. In fact, I was astonished at the level of critical discourse in Poland, which is infinitely higher than it is in the UK or US. Interviewers will actually have read your book and you must be prepared for a deep inquisition about your techniques and ideas—it’s not enough to talk crap for twenty minutes while tossing off a few gags. Afterwards, during my final TV interview I watched from the corner of my eye as an old lady nervously half-inched a display copy. Normally I advocate a Saudi-style approach to this kind of theft which deprives me of my copious royalties, but just this once I accepted it as a complement: Polish pensioners were even willing to steal to get a copy.
And then after my brief sojourn as the new literary lion of Poland, it was back to Texas, where a rather different social status is accorded to authors of subversive anti-travelogues: higher than a homeless loon begging at bus stop, perhaps, but only slightly. But I welcome this—I like the spiritual discipline, and after Poland, perhaps I need it more than usual.
Cut up and spliced into the Guardian books diary, 15/11/08