Strange Telescopes by Daniel Kalder

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Strange Telescopes by Daniel Kalder

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Buy Strange Telescopes by Daniel Kalder at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Travel
Rating: 3/5
Reviewer: Lesley Mason
Reviewed by Lesley Mason
Summary: A strange excursion into the backwaters of a society that seems to have lost its way: the search for the bohemian in the Moscow underground, the fight against the anti-christs, and an encounter with a self-proclaimed “second coming”....all winding up with a jerry-built tower on the outskirts of the Arctic circle. Strange indeed.
Buy? Maybe Borrow? Maybe
Pages: 416 Date: May 2008
Publisher: Faber and Faber
ISBN: 978-0571231232

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Bill Bryson with Tourette's was one of the epithets that met Kalder's previous travelogue (Lost Cosmonaut) along with 'sharp absurdist insight', 'deliberately crass' and 'revelatory'. I can't actually disagree with any of that if you were to apply it to the latest offering Strange Telescopes.

What this one isn't, however, to continue to steal from the earlier reviews, is 'travel reportage of the best kind', brilliantly funny' or 'strangely wonderful'.

To get the negativity out of the way first, Kalder's style IS crass. Any deliberation involved doesn't make it any more readable. What we are presented with comes across as a largely unedited travel-diary of the kind we all wrote as twenty-something interrailers, full of the kind of detail that illuminates nothing at all. Personal ruminations sitting alongside souvenir photographs interspersed with historical background pasted on a backdrop of ineffective travel arrangements. All of it presented in small notebook snippets.

Been there, done that. Sadly failed to understand I could have gotten a book out of it.

This is travel reportage of the laziest kind.

If Kalder had Bryson's sympathy for people, the construct might have worked. Had there been more real humour in the presentation, I'd have forgiven the shortcomings. Unfortunately, in the 400 pages he rarely provoked a smile, let alone a chortle.

On the other hand, given his subject matter, perhaps we should have a little sympathy with him. Post-soviet Russia is possibly as little a laughing matter as its predecessor.

So what's it all about?

Good question. By the end it is justified as an investigation of people living alternative realities…worlds constructed from their own imagination…and doing so in a particularly Russian way: a way that could probably only have evolved in the very particular post-Soviet conditions of the late 1990s in the former USSR, but which also hark back to the more fundamentally Russian influences of character, personality and geography that both allowed the Soviet takeover and proved ultimately to be its demise.

There are essentially four investigations: the Diggers, the Exorcists, the Vissarionites, and the Tower.

None of them as revelatory as they might have been. Each of them revealing en passant something of the mindset left over in what was the Soviet Union.

The Diggers: a decade ago Kalder had heard a tale of the Diggers, a sensitive, educated people who had turned their backs on modern life and retreated to the network of tunnels and secret bunkers beneath the city. Of course. Every city has a secret life below ground…and if what we see of Moscow's underground railway network is to believed their tunnels will be more beautiful, more bohemian, more spiritual than those below New York, or London, or Berlin. It should be so.

Not only is there the amazing artwork that exists in the public tunnels, but there are the romantic rumours of secret railway links, escape bunkers, a library. Of course there are. If provincial Norwich can generate a legendary tunnel from the Cathedral to the chalk pits on the other side of the river, what MUST there be below Moscow?

Sewers, mainly.

Water. Rats. Damp and darkness and fear. And not so much a dream of a future, but a longing for a more noble past.

The Exorcists: Edward is the kind of educated Russian who can affect an upper-class English accent circa 1935. Sadly, he also has this vision of England as being a hangover from Brideshead… all cucumber sandwiches and Shakespeare. Whether this has any bearing on his overriding consuming belief that the world is full of genuine demons, I'm not entirely sure.

It does at least explain why he would want to share his work with a Scots author (being as close as he's likely to get, with a bit Braveheart romance thrown in for free).

Edward, you see, is working on a documentary about the eradication of demons from Russia. The demise of the soviets left the kind of power vacuum that could only be filled by a resurgence of the opium of the masses and the rebirth of the Orthodox Church. Christianity ought to have a strong enough claim on the soul to exist in its own right, but it would seem that it does need (just like the soviets & their counterparts in the west) a demon to fight, in order to justify its presence.

For some 120 pages we follow the author's Satanic Education. He learns what demons are, how to recognise them, and how they are driven out. Actually, he doesn't learn anything at all, but he does follow the true believer Edward to the Ukraine, where he witnesses exorcism on an industrial scale.

It is unbelievably mediaeval in the nature of the problems, depth of belief, credulousness and manipulation. In amongst it there are compassionate priests who off-the-record admit that they are not fighting the devil incarnate, but merely pandering to a spiritual or mental need for a kind of succour. And if the point of Christ's message was love and compassion, perhaps they are right to splash their holy water around and send the mentally ill away, comforted for a few days more. Who is to say that all of our rationality could give them more peace or hope?

Strangely, in these investigations it is Edward who has the strong faith. Not the congregations, not the priests, but the film-maker…the seeker…

The Vissarionites are a different matter entirely. In the wastes of Siberia the second coming has come to pass in the form of one Sergei Torop, an ex-traffic-cop who has announced himself as Christ reincarnate.

Yes.

Quite.

The fact that he has two wives and a number of children and no intention of leaving the planet by crucifixion or any other route any time soon might cause a few waverers among the rational seekers of truth.

In harsh lands of Siberia however he has built a community of true believers. Before you think: ah well, Siberia, you know, it can do that to a person… know that these people came to Siberia to be with him. They left good solid, relatively prosperous lives, to live at the end of the world and put their most banal questions in the hands of an unclear-thinking hippy, with a notion of fusing the major world religions into a single teaching. Which doesn't sound so bad until you learn that Judaism isn't one of those religions…and the synthesis has a very special view of the role of Jews in the history of the planet so far…

On this subject, as on all others Kalder passes little comment, leaving the reader to draw their own conclusions. His argument being that he has to gain their confidence, to gain access, to be able to depict. He cannot challenge or criticise, He must simply accept and portray.

I cannot help but wonder how much distance that actually leaves between him and Disciple No. 1: the gospel writer.

The Tower: sitting oddly amongst these journeys of quasi-spiritual exploration is the final visit to the home Nikolai Sutyagin.

Born & brought up in the barely sub-arctic province of Arkangel, in the industrial area of Solombola, Sutyagin made money under perestroika…indeed he claims to have invented the system decades before Gorbachev understood what it could do for the motherland. He worked in timber. He acquired some land, and started to build a house.

And forgot to stop building. The structure grew ever upwards…on the basis of a plan, then on the wings of a dream unplanned. Tenuous links to Russian dreams embedded in Tatlin's Monument to the Third International or Iofan's unrealised Palace of the Soviets suggest how and why this might be a quintessential Russian eccentricity.

But is it really any more than a failed oligarch's dreams of grandeur, wanting the biggest and best house on the block?

The author's meeting with the Chief Architect of Arkhangelsk (who also has a senior administrative role in the Planning dept) confirms all of the romantic allusions. It also confirms that Sutyagin was acting on instinct and did not have a fully realised conception. When we finally get inside the tower the overwhelming impression I'm left with is that of Miss Haversham's feast. A dream slowly catching cobwebs.

In the final analysis I find myself at a loss as to whether the author has achieved his aim. Having wandered through the darkest parts of Moscow, the Ukraine, Siberia and the lower reaches of the arctic circle, I feel that I have met some interestingly deranged individuals and seen the kernels of truth at the heart of their madness…and in some cases the ticking fuses on the edges of it.

My overriding response was one of depression. That the hope of freedom that rode on those glory days of the early 1990s has faded into rehearsals of earlier escapist fantasies feels like such a waste.

I can't help thinking that this wasn't the plan.

It's rare that I feel the need to comment on the production quality of a book. Usually I will only do this if there is something special in the illustration or presentation that adds value, being a person who loves books as tangible objects, not just for the notions they contain within them.

On this occasion, however, I do feel obliged to add that the copy I received completely fell apart in the two weeks it took me to read it. I now have not so much a book as a collection of loose pages. Not only will I not read this particular copy again, but sadly neither will anyone else.

At £15 for a paperback edition, sorry Faber – but this isn't good enough.

If your take is different to mine... and you chime with Kalder the way I fail to, check out the aforementioned Lost Cosmonaut.

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Buy Strange Telescopes by Daniel Kalder at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Strange Telescopes 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 Strange Telescopes by Daniel Kalder at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy Strange Telescopes by Daniel Kalder at Amazon.com.

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