Friday, 11 April 2008

Lost Cosmonaut - entertaining but 'anti-tourism' premise fails to convince

On a thread about travel literature on ‘The Dreaming Arm’, I mentioned yesterday that I was reading an unusual piece of travel writing by an author called Daniel Kalder. Kalder styles himself an “anti-tourist” and his trips focus on empty, dreary and forgotten places. He is derisive of the more conventional form of tourism which he sees as seeking a bogus authenticity in beauty and cultural exoticism. Whilst I understand his cynicism, I also wonder whether his exploration of “black holes” is simply another, equally doomed, attempt to seek out his own perception of ‘authentic’ or ‘real’.

The book which I have just finished is entitled ‘Lost Cosmonaut’ and it charts Kalder’s rather slapdash explorations of European Russia’s least celebrated ethnic republics. And his account is both entertaining and at times hilarious. Even within Russia these republics are obscure destinations. I consulted Lonely Planet’s guide to Russia every now and again during my reading and with the exception of Kazan, which is a reasonably well known provincial Russian city, no other destination Kalder mentions has an entry in the guide.

Kazan is the capital of Tatarstan and it is the first destination the author visits in ‘Lost Cosmonaut’. Kalder’s style is to reveal the nature of these republics through his experiences and to add a little context here and there. The self-consciously desultory nature of his explorations can hinder this process somewhat. This travel writer likes to spend long evenings watching television in his hotel room, he eschews the local cuisine to eat in McDonalds style eateries and rarely leaves the urban hinterlands in which he finds his own conception of beauty. Whether this approach actually uncovers more about the nature of the places he visits is arguable, but I would imagine that the author might claim that that he is not trying to uncover any truths.

Tatarstan, Kalmykia, El Mari and Udmurtia are four of the Russian Federation’s twenty one ethnic republics. They are based on the titular nationalities whose homelands the republics are perceived as comprising. These arrangements were largely based on fairly arbitrary decisions hurriedly made as the USSR was being established. After many years of Tsarist Russification and economic migration from other parts of Russia and the Soviet Union, these republics carry only remnants of the cultural identities on which they are predicated. It is the residual character of these cultures, the ambiguous status of the republics, the fact that the people have largely integrated into a larger Russian culture but can’t quite complete the process due to their nominal ‘nationality’ that interests Kalder.

When the author allows himself to interact with local people he comes close to illuminating the pathos and ambiguity that colour these destinations. His encounter with the High Priest of Mari paganism is a particularly memorable section of the book. This man’s understanding of his religion is at odds with the leading books detailing Mari beliefs and his life experiences are grounded in the Soviet Union in which he was employed as a ‘shock worker’. He proudly displays articles to the author which he wrote for the Soviet press.

I enjoyed this book hugely and I did sympathise with Kalder’s attitudes about travel. But I did ultimately have to question whether in firmly eschewing conventional pretensions and hypocrisies, if the author was not setting up an alternative set of pretensions and hypocrisies of his own. He is withering about tourists who like to look at poor people in exotic locations. I would suggest that there is nothing intrinsically more laudable about looking at poor people in bleak locations. Whilst Kalder likes to claim that he is not seeking to draw moral lessons, there is a degree of criticism implicit in what he alleges of other tourists. He therefore should not be immune from accusations of exoticising and romanticising grimness.


CW said...

Staying in your hotel room all night and eating fast food seems to defeat the purpose of travel - but then I suppose this is him being ironic in a post-modern way. He seems to be sticking two fingers up to conventional travel writing, something which I'm not sure really works.

However I'll give him credit for exploring the little known cultural and ethnic identities within the vast Russian interior, which we in the west don't give much thought to. It challenges our own stereotypical perceptions of Russia as a monocultural entity, when in actual fact it contains a multitude of cultures and ethnic identities almost as broad in scope as the diversity of cultures to be found in western Europe.

Hernandez said...

On a similar note, I was planning to cycle from St Petersurg to Vladivostock in two summers time. By my reckoning it would take approximately 10-12 months time. Do you think there would be any problems from a political point of view?

Chekov said...

I'm not so sure about the political point of view, however I'd imagine you might have problems from the -40C temperature point of view.

Hernandez said...

I'm bringing a flask of tea with me though.

Chekov said...

Interesting to look back on this having actually visited Kazan. You've not set out on that cycling journey Hernandez, although a Russian trip did happen.