Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder

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Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder

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Buy Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Travel
Rating: 4/5
Reviewer: Zoe Morris
Reviewed by Zoe Morris
Summary: Travelling to remote areas of Russia often quite rightly over-looked, Lost Cosmonaut is an entertaining collection of travel stories told through the eyes of a 20-something Scotsman. At times hilarious, at times educational, it is always engaging and does a good job of selling the little visited parts of this country to the masses.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Yes
Pages: 384 Date: February 2007
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571227815

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Daniel Kalder is trying to go where no one has gone before, to deepest, darkest Russia, to places with exotic names like Tartarstan, Kalmykia, Mari El and Udmurtia. The problem is, whenever he arrives somewhere, he find he's been beaten to it by an Irishman here, a Scotsman there. Damn westerners. They get everywhere, even places picked specifically on the understanding that no one in their right mind would choose to go there, and therefore Kalder and his companions could be the first.

Lost Cosmonaut chronicles Kalder's travels to these peculiar yet fascinating republics of Russia. Set over several years, it is a travelogue with a difference because at least half of the content seems to cover the history of the destinations and observations on their culture, with only 50% actually detailing the trips that took place. My only criticism of the book is that there's a tiny bit too much non-travel stuff in my mind. The historical background was interesting, but I felt it ended up taking away from the story, rather than adding to it as intended.

The four trips are at the same time both isolated and interconnected, but are sufficiently self-contained that you can choose to read just one at a time, without losing the plot. The style is similar to Bill Bryson's, though with a perhaps younger voice, and the language is slightly more crude (not unpleasantly rude, but with more colourful terms than some other authors).

I felt the book gained a lot from the fact that instead of a professional travel writer, Kalder is just a writer who travels: this added a certain twist to all the tales, a different take on the situations and a unique voice through which to describe them all. The book begins with a tongue-in-cheek look at the rules so declared "anti-tourists" live by, including:

The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones. The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year. The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.

And, my personal favourite:

The anti-tourist loves truth but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.

This last one is clearly embraced by Kalder at several stages in the book, but when exaggeration or down-right fibs are more interesting than telling it like it is, why sacrifice the entertainment value by sticking solidly to the truth?

I identified with the author as a fellow traveller who will go and see a church to add some 'culture' to a day, but will then spend twice as many pages talking about the menu of Mig-Mag, the local equivalent of McDonald's. Someone who will make an effort to find out about the local people and their habits and rituals, but still thinks nothing can beat a museum full of bottled babies or a town where the ratio of Russian bride marriage agencies to local population is a mere 1: 4000.

I'm something of a philistine when it comes to Russia. I have never been there, know little about the country and its culture, and to be honest had no real desire to learn before I read this book. And, while doing so hasn't sent the country soaring to the top of my must-visit list, it has moved it up a few places. Who, after all, wouldn't be intrigued by a ghost city devoted entirely to the game of chess? Or a town where there are neighbourhoods specifically for serial killers who neatly clear up after themselves? It reassured me to know that I can enjoy books about places I've not visited and don't know a lot about in the same way I love those which feature places I've lived in or travelled to. And plus, in a good way, it felt a tiny bit educational too.

This is a book for anyone who thinks the journey is better than the final destination, who likes kooky observations on people and places as much as detailed descriptions of the content and purpose of all the buildings in the city and who can take flip comments on a country's past in the way they are meant - as a useful brief introduction to somewhere rather than a dull history lesson.

If you like books about life in other countries, The BookBag can also recommend Mukiwa: A White Boy in Africa by Peter Godwin and if the historical elements of this story appeal, you could also try George Orwell's Homage to Catalonia.

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Buy Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder at Amazon.co.uk Amazon currently charges £2.99 for standard delivery for orders under £20, over which delivery is free.
Buy Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Lost Cosmonaut by Daniel Kalder at Amazon.com.

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Magda said:

I have now read it. It's wonderful!