THEN – By Julie Myerson

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THEN

By Julie Myerson

 

I feel uneasy with books that create the worst possible, most desperate situations and then imagine the appalling ways people in those situations might behave. THEN is a book of this kind, written by someone who has achieved a certain notoriety for having converted her teenage son’s drug addiction into material for a book. I haven’t looked into this in much detail because, frankly, I’m not interested and I suspect this blending of what is written and the context around it would only confuse and interfere with one’s reading of THEN. The novel is, stylistically, a great achievement – a narrative that blurs the characters awareness of fantasy and reality, something which becomes more disturbing as the story evolves. There is a spare, icy quality to the prose – evocative of the frozen, post-apocalyptic world in which the novel is set. The rendering of atmosphere and suffering is skillful – but also the source of my reservations. There seems to me something too easy about a text where despair and suffering are so extreme that the reader is only able to be a voyeur. We are not in a position to engage at any ethical level, the decisions taken and the behaviour of the main character are a product of such violence that we can only really feel dismay. I question the value of this experience as something reached through reading.

then by MyersonMoreover, I suspect it is dangerous – one of the greatest illusions we can harbour is that being able to experience emotion when reading is the equivalent of knowing feelings in real life (‘theory of mind’ tells us that empathy is a frequent response to fiction, but empathy is not the same as  knowledge.) Perhaps there are certain dark journeys of the soul that resist fictional treatment and feel wrong when neatly packaged for an audience. If so, THEN is probably such a novel.

THE LOST COSMONAUT – By Daniel Kalder

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THE LOST COSMONAUT

By Daniel Kalder

“This is my favourite travel book.. I should perhaps qualify that statement by saying I am not a great fan of the genre, for reasons I cannot really explain, although I think it is connected to my own feelings about the reliability of personal accounts – they are a bit too close to journalism – and I suspect there is still a free meal for the author in there somewhere. Kalder’s choices of places to visit could not possibly involve a free meal, and if they did, you suspect it would be better to starve. Kalder is an ‘anti-tourist,’ but that does not mean he is against tourism. To clarify his take on tourism it is probably best to quote from the Anti-Tourist Manifesto
(Excerpts from the resolutions passed at the first international congress of Anti- Tourists at the Shymkent Hotel, Shymkent, Kazakhstan, October 1999.)

The anti-tourist eschews comfort.
The anti-tourist embraces hunger and hallucinations and shit hotels.
The anti-tourist seeks locked doors and demolished buildings.
The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year.
The anti-tourist prefers dead things to living ones.
The anti-tourist is humble and seeks invisibility.
The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art.
The anti-tourist believes beauty is in the street.
The anti-tourist holds that whatever travel does, it rarely broadens the mind.
The anti-tourist values disorientation over enlightenment.
The anti-tourist loves truth, but he is also partial to lies. Especially his own.

Thus Kalder sets off on trips to the unvisited, unattractive and unappealing forgotten former Soviet republics and frequently discovers locations that fit the specifications of the manifesto. The narrative is low-key and understated, humorously evocative. The journeys are undertaken in all seriousness but puzzle even the locals – at one point a ticket inspector on the way to a chosen city simply refuses to believe the travellers are going there by their own choice, she cannot accept they are tourists. In one hotel, Kalder delights in the old radios the rooms are fitted with – radios you cannot turn off or tune but which emit a constant, low-pitched humming sound. I think The Lost Cosmonaut is a reminder of the fact that we do not know our world – we have the illusion – through modern communications, mapping and the collation of data – that it is all known and pigeon-holed, for better or worse. It is good to be reminded that this is not the case, and reflect that we can probably see this for ourselves without going nearly as far afield as Shymkent.

Lost cosmonaut