Do Scotsmen have a hardier sense of humor than the rest of us, or do they receive special school classes in thumbing their nose at the world? How many people could write about an avowedly pointless journey without being sentimentally spiritual or just plain silly?
Okay, so Kalder doesn’t always succeed in avoiding silliness. He’s young, he’s adventurous, and he’s enamored of his role as an “anti-tourist.” He’s often unnecessarily crass. But his very real curiosity about countries, peoples, and rituals that most of us have never heard of trumps the often self-indulgent passages, as well as the hodgepodge of scenes, characters, and proposals for screenplays, of an aimless author’s first book. From a stomach-churning display of bottled mutant babies in Tatarstan to a disappointing pagan ritual in Mari El, Kalder takes us on a bizarre journey through the forgotten republics of the Soviet Union. Did you know there was a city entirely devoted to chess–Chess City–in the Republic of Kalmyk? Neither did I. Did you know there was a Republic of Kalmyk? I won’t tell. While trying to maintain a clever, self-abasing tone, Kalder can’t help but show his meticulous attention to–and interest in–obscure histories of obscure cultures. I don’t ever want to visit Kalmyk or Udmurtia, but I know a heck of a lot more about them now than I did last year (their existence, for one).
Kalder seeks out desolate fields of empty apartment blocks and an abandoned Buddhist temple in the middle of nowhere. He actively avoids anything that might be “something,” to the disgruntlement of his sometime travel companions. Of course, you can’t write much of a book without writing about something–the center of the Slavic wife trade in Mari El, or a surprisingly excellent theater production in Elista, for example. What I liked about Kalder’s search for nothing was his admittance that, tired of living an aimless existence, he really was looking for meaning in his life, combined with the honest knowledge that he wasn’t going to find any. And he doesn’t. You can’t read this book hoping for enlightenment any more than you can read it to help plan your next vacation (unless it’s where not to go). You read it because you, like Kalder, have an insatiable curiosity that will never be satisfied by armchair journeys to comfortable, beautiful, or interesting places. And you, like Kalder, are willing to poke a little fun at the world.