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Being in nothingness

Lost Cosmonaut Observations of an Anti-Tourist Daniel Kalder Scribner: 276 pp., $13 paper

September 03, 2006|Karrie Higgins | Karrie Higgins is a writer in Portland, Ore.

IN "Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist," Daniel Kalder chronicles four journeys he took to Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia: obscure Eastern European republics forgotten by history, invisible to tourists and non-existent in the Western imagination. For Kalder, these "lost zones" are beautiful precisely because they are not beautiful -- and worth exploring because nobody wants to explore them.

Kalder calls himself an anti-tourist. But "Lost Cosmonaut" is hardly a contrarian's screed. There are no rants here about globalization. Nor does the author thumb his nose at corporate fast food chains driving out the local Mig Mag in Izhevsk or at a soon-to-be IKEA superstore in Kazan. He is not interested in National Geographic-style photos of peasants with heart. His travel ideology is altogether different. As an anti-tourist, he swears allegiance to a manifesto called the "The Shymkent Declarations," which boldly proclaim that the wonders of the world are "as banal as the face of a Cornflakes packet." Forsaking places like Paris and Prague, Kalder writes, anti-tourists seek out "wastelands, black holes, and grim urban blackspots: all the places which, ordinarily, people choose to avoid." They deliberately stay in nasty hotels and delight in "locked doors." They travel "at the wrong time of year" -- so they can see places the way locals see them. They like lies, especially the ones they spin.

That last bit about lies is key. Kalder loves to tell tall tales. He concocts plots for movies he will never write, with titles like "Gangs of Kazan" -- complete with costumes and hairstyles, a "[b]ad disco and easy listening" soundtrack and an attempted rape scene staged entirely for the purpose of giving "male viewers a chance to ogle a pair of nice young breasts." In Kalmykia, he visits a Web forum to ask for help in tracking down a copy of the republic's sole surviving heroic saga, "Jangar." Kalder says he wants to translate the work so he can "introduce their national epic to the English-speaking world for the first time." In the end, however, he offers little more than a one-page synopsis, tossed off for him by a Kalmyk law student with little facility for writing prose.

Such episodes are irreverent and laugh-out-loud hilarious, but they achieve something far deeper, establishing a constant tension between the reality of these places and the travel narratives you want to hear. Kalder plays on this perfectly -- inviting you to be complicit, daring you to recognize your own desire for something other than authentic, real experiences. You want the spectacle. Isn't that why you bought a travel book?

Kalder also snaps photos of seemingly inane, meaningless subjects -- all part of a project he calls "The Secret History of the World." These images, too, represent a sort of anti-spectacle, the raw stuff of daily life. There are the faded Teletubbies painted on a wall in Kalmykia -- a bizarre bit of graffiti to discover in the middle of the Russian steppe -- and a dead fox in a Buddhist temple. There's the "dead ferris wheel" in Yoshkar Ola, and the hammer and sickle on a fence outside the Izhmash plant in Izhevsk. In a sense, the photos are no longer a "secret history," since Kalder shares them with us. Yet in another sense, they will always be secret. Who will ever remember these images? Who will care?

Although "Lost Cosmonaut" is broken up into four parts -- one for each journey -- it has a fragmentary structure, with short, numbered chapters that don't necessarily add up to a cohesive whole. Some consist of nothing but text from mail-order-brides-to-be personal ads, local proverbs, histories of "secret wars," "unseen memorials for unseen tragedies," lists from translation guides and notes about attractions that Kalder never saw. Even when he describes his own experiences, the material is often only implicitly connected. There is no through line to sew everything together. It is as if Kalder refuses to construct a narrative from what are, in essence, remnants. He wants us to write the story ourselves, while he resists the impulse to play "the wise man" who explains his travels to the world.

Throughout the book, Kalder challenges us to see the beauty in obliteration, to find the potential for creation in absolute destruction. He dares us to think about inner and outer landscapes as the same place -- even as our own invention. "[T]he obliterated Kazan can never be visited," he notes, "except in our imaginations, and thus it can never disappoint.... Through annihilation, it has been transubstantiated. And the pitiful squalor of the real Kazan only adds to the beauty and power of the unreal one."

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