The Lost Cosmonaut, by Daniel Kalder

145119I have mixed feelings about reading The Lost Cosmonaut: Observations of an Anti-Tourist, by Daniel Kalder. There were a lot of things I liked. I really enjoyed that I got to tag along on Kalder’s trips to places that, according to a New York Times review I read when the book first came out, even Russians haven’t heard of. This is why I read travel books in the first place. This book also had the added benefit of some philosophy about places we have never heard of. For example, there’s this bit on page 24 of the trade paperback version, where Kalder talks about discovering the cultural figures of these places:

The existence of these invisible geniuses disturbs me. We take no notice of their music, their books, their causes, or their history, altough they are and it is European. But it’s unknown, a whole other Europe, a shadow Europe, that does not exist for us…I know people are reguarly tortured and murdered for causes I’ve never heard of. So the existence of ghost canons and traditions shouldn’t really disturb me at all. But it does. I shiver when I think about them. They are a mystery, an existential riddle I cannot solve.

It’s a little trite to say that this book really made me think. But it did. There are so few books that I read that I really think expand my consciousness and make me think about all the other billions of people on the planet and what their lives are like.

Kalder also has a really odd sense of humor that appeals to me. One of my favorite bits is this one, where Kalder’s friends have gone off to visit a Kalmykian Buddhist temple: “I preferred to sit on a bench and observe the emptiness. That, and not Buddhism, was what I had come for” (111). I am sure this little funny was entirely deliberate, but I like those moments in a book when the reader and the person who wrote the book–as opposed to the narrator persona–get to share a laugh.

But I get mixed feelings about this book around the beginning of the second half. After a while, the author really struck me as kind of a putz. And you know how hard it is to enjoy a trip with someone you don’t like? Who doesn’t enjoy the same things you do? It felt like this after a while. I stuck with it, hoping that Kalder (or the version of him in the book) would stop being so snide and world-weary. That didn’t happen, unfortunately.

The first two parts of the book are good. They’re odd and funny, and I learned a lot about parts of the world that I would never have heard of otherwise. But the last two parts of the book, well, I still learned things, but I didn’t enjoy it near as much.


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