Sunday, May 10, 2009

Strange Telescopes: Following the Apocalypse from Moscow to Siberia, by Daniel Kalder

Strange Telescopes chronicles Daniel Kalder's journeys through post-perestroika Russia, Siberia and the Ukraine in search of four people who view the world 'through strange telescopes' - individuals that have created alternate realities for themselves. His quests take him to remote places far from any conventional tourist route, seeking a peek into these unique worlds that exist not so much on the ground as in people's heads. Are they visionaries, con artists or just deluded eccentrics? Either way, suggests Kalder, they represent a phenomenon rather uniquely Russian, triggered by individual struggles to survive the economic and social upheaval caused by the fall of the USSR.

An article in a Russian magazine he cheekily dubs 'Residential Property Shit' leads Kalder to the first of these four parallel worlds, the 'Underground Planet' in the sewer network under Moscow, and its self crowned monarch, the Digger.

Next stop the Ukraine, where Father Grigory aka the Teacher briskly conducts exorcisms in a remote rural outpost, while also managing a large farm and delivering each of his fifteen children himself.

Next, a remote commune in Siberia where an ex-traffic cop renamed Vissarion, apparently Christ's Second Coming, leads his faithful flock towards salvation and an ecofriendly future.

And finally, a meeting with Nikolai Sutyagin, architect of Russia's tallest wooden building and, by his own admission, perestroika as well.

The four stories are interesting case studies in the power of belief. Each of these characters has an unshakeable conviction in their own mission, in the 'rightness' of their actions. And this is a conviction that is infectious - three of these men have attracted a following for their ideas, some of whom we meet through the course of the book. By contrast, Kalder comes away from each contrast bewildered by this steadfast faith that spurs people to renounce their lives and embrace the hardship and deprivation that come with it.

The narrative is sprinkled with postcards and historical vignettes, chronicling a quest that is sometimes bizarre, sometimes surreal and always entertaining. Kalder writes with wry humour and vigour,focusing his scathing wit both on the people he meets as well as himself. This is not, however, the avuncular humour of say, Bill Bryson's travel writing. Kalder never really develops a fondness for the people or country he is writing about; at one point he dismisses an entire generation as 'pasty faced wankers' and elsewhere,he refers to them as "..people who turned out to be saps, fools, thieves, baby-rapists and mass murderers."

Still, this is compelling prose that kept me hooked. And as much as this is a book about the power of faith, it is also about disillusionment - mostly the author's own. He approaches each encounter with enthusiasm and the excitement of the seeker looking to believe, if he would only be shown a sign; by the end, however, he comes away let down by the wide variance between what each world has promised, and the realities it presents him with. The book ends almost abruptly, with Kalder rushing through his meeting with Sutyagin before leaving Russia altogether. By then , he has run out of questions; his disillusionment with these worlds and with his own need to seek them out seems complete. He has no great thesis to deliver either or conclusions to draw ; all he can say is that he has been merely "..a combination of vibrating air particles in their ears and light reflected on the back of their eyeballs' a fleeting distraction, an interruption in the midst of their important work... And now they continued to gaze through their strange telescopes at marvellous stars so distant that no one else could see them."

For me, this book was as much about the author himself - our own strange telescope into the fantastic worlds he seeks out and examines- and the compulsions that draw him onward on each of these journeys.

A unique travelogue - bizarre yet beautiful, much like the region it portrays.

Thanks to Vida Engstrand from Overlook Press for sending Bookblah a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. Great review - am seriously thinking of buying it. 'Pasty-faced wankers' - most inspiring!