Thursday, May 07, 2009

Daniel Kalder - "Strange Telescopes"

“Lost Cosmonaut”, Kalder’s first book, was already hovering close to genius with its whole “anti-tourism” schtick (travelling to “nowhere”, or more precisely, those unknown bits in the middle of Russia), but “Strange Telescopes” just raised the anti-travel-writing gambit further: this time he visits universes that only exist in his interviewees heads’.

But first, some infidel bashing: back in 2006 travel writer Rory MacLean (am I the only one who’s thinking conflict of interests?) reviewed “Lost Cosmonaut” and wrote the following:

“(…)as a traveller he has a problem. He doesn't 'much like talking to people'.

(…)He refuses to see that beyond the sterile heritage centres, the superficial cultural resemblances and the wastelands of our age, the world still remains diverse and full of wonders. But then to appreciate that diversity and to experience these wonders the traveller must do one thing first. Talk to people.”

Well, I have a couple of things to say about that for myself and everyone else that dislikes “talking to people”: it is obviously an idiotic notion to think that if you chat up a couple of locals you’ll be anywhere near understanding the place in question – more than likely these are the same people who hang around public squares and monuments trying to find an unsuspecting tourist (or travel writer) to feed the same old stories to. Anyone anxious to talk to a foreigner is probably not that interesting anyway (but try explaining that to tourists).

Second, I read MacLean’s book on the hippie trail “Magic Bus” and have to say that not only it managed to completely bore me on a subject that has interested me since adolescence; it is also completely forgettable (proof? I can’t remember anything about it and I read it last year).

So, with that out of the way, it must be stated that Kalder got over his (perfectly reasonable, if you ask me) dislike of engaging others in conversation, in a spectacular manner. In “Strange Telescopes” he talks to people most of us would avoid making eye-contact with. He enters their homes, travels with them, obeys their commandments, steps wholeheartedly into their worlds.

They are Sergei, leader of the “Diggers” who live on the tunnels beneath Moscow, Edward, hell-bent (excuse the pun) on proving to the world the real danger of demonic possession, Vissarion, the Siberian Jesus and Nikolai Sutyagin builder of a fairy-tale/ horror movie construction, a sky-scraper made entirely of wood.

Is Russia an especially fertile breeding ground for alternate realities? It’s hard to say, though there is definitely something intrinsically Russian about these characters, as they each make clear by their stories.

The best thing about “Strange Telescopes” is its tone. Now don’t get me wrong, Kalder can do dark and even risqué humor with the best, but with his subjects he never falls into the easy trap of condescension. Sure, sometimes they are incredibly frustrating, annoying or just plain boring, but there’s never that disgusting faux “understanding”, that wink-wink “aren’t they just the biggest wackos ever?” best epitomized in this ABC story on Vissarion.

Looking at the world through someone else’s eyes is a difficult feat at best – and when it involves going down a sewer drain, attending an exorcism in rural Ukraine, travelling to Siberia in the dead of winter and risk being mauled by Caucasian Shepherd dogs, who wants to try, anyway? Why, someone who doesn’t like talking to people, of course.

A small parenthesis here:

Travel writing is something I used to think I liked. Then I started getting one pompous, tedious book after the other. Most of the time the (British/American/Canadian) writer will talk a lot - but only to English-speaking expats or the feeble-minded who wait around for Anglo-Saxonic writers in order to bait them with “interesting” stories. It just might be the most masturbatorial genre out there (and let’s not even get into the I-moved-to-(Spain/France/Greece/Portugal/Marocco, etc)-with-(a cello/a parrot/my grandmother) gig). I finally figured that what bothers me about it is the same thing that bothered me about my once upon a time major, anthropology: like it or not, they both suffer from a Tarzan complex “Me-study” “You-subject”. There is always the unspoken fact that we are allowed to observe them, because we can make sense of them. And XX century tourism, of course, followed the same path.

And…end small parenthesis.

So, if I wanted to get all structuralist on your ass I’d tell you that what this Kalder fellow has got going on here, with his anti-tourism, anti-everyday thingy is nothing short of an epistemological revolution. Unfortunately I graduated before I could fully understand these (and other concepts).

Coming from a cold and depressing place to Russia is probably a good antidote against trying to romanticize/criticize every step of the way. Still, let’s give credit where it is due: Kalder avoided with all his might the western need to “make-sense-of”, whether looking for stuff he never got to see, seeing stuff he couldn’t quite believe or listening to people who make incomprehensible choices. Most of the time he didn’t even feel the need to ask “why?” – it was enough just being around them. That’s right folks – he didn’t even talk that much.

The ultimate act of surrender – deliver yourself to the natives.

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