Daniel Kalder was a Scot in his late 20s when he set out on the travels – the four journeys that make up his book The Lost Cosmanaut. Faber and Faber did him proud for this is a paperback with a cover – the kind of cover that hardbacks get. And I think it was because of this cover that I decided this was likely to be a book of quality and so well worth the £1 I paid for it. As with all my book purchases the one person who most deserves to be rewarded is the person who misses out. I hope he is doing better on Kindle.
Daniel decided he would go to the Russian republics that while being in Europe are not places that attract tourists – they are places that the copywriter of his dust jacket (very likely to be Mr Kalder himself) refers to as “The republics that tourism forgot.” The reasons tourists don’t go there is that they are sad, benighted places. But the main reason is that we don’t know they are there: places such as Tatarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia.
Kalder calls his visits there ‘anti-tourism’. In fact, by the time he gets to Udmurtia he is very tempted by the idea of never leaving his very bleak hotel bedroom.
And being a Scot he is sour and dour. He enjoys the bleakness of it. It mirrors to him the bleakness of his own soul. And this is not, as you may have guessed, a normal travelogue. We are informed as much about the author’s own inner mental states as we are the places he visits, he tells us his imaginings, as if they were facts. At one point he throws in the ‘fact’ that he had run out of money in the middle of a sex realignment operation. He is the kind of man who in a pub will throw in a false fact, an objectionable observation, simply to get a reaction. But the world he has chosen to travel through and be a witness of is bleakness to the nth degree. Towards the end of the book he makes the point that we act as if we matter (despite the shortness of life and the insignificance of our works “All your struggling, your striving, gone – puff – like a fart in a sock.” (great image – the slight leavings of a temporary pong) – “And I think that’s the problem the denizens of these lost zones have, why their condition is more severe than ours. They don’t see their lives reflected in the media, in stories, in the books they read or study They don’t have the illusion of connectedness to the hum, the throb, the buzz of the modern world…They are merely forgotten footnotes…They are already forgotten, already not seen…”
Despite the bleakness, the nothingness of the landscapes – physical, cultural, personal – that he traveled through I managed to hang on to the end – which is something I say about increasingly few books