Sacha Baron Cohen's alter ego, Borat, has quickly transcended his role as a comic character, and become a significant prompt for bien pensant chin-stroking in the salons of Hampstead and the columns of the Sunday broadsheets. Who are we really laughing at when we watch Baron Cohen, in his cheap suits and neo-Scouse moustache? Is it racism? What about the donkey? Is it all an Uzbek plot? Is it significant that Baron Cohen is Jewish? Do you know all the words to 'Throw The Jew Down The Well'? Will he be launching his own line of swimwear?
Whatever Baron Cohen's motives, it's clear that the crucial decision was to invent a character that came from somewhere about which we had no firm ideas; even better, many people had never heard of it. We all know the stereotypes, even if we find them repulsive: Indians move their heads from side to side; Nigerians are fraudsters; Poles can install a power shower in minutes. But Kazakhs? Um... weren't they sworn enemies of Flash Gordon? If there's any -ism at the heart of Borat's humour, it's at the expense of the witless rednecks that he lures into expressing their ignorance; Billybobism, maybe.
Borat's ubiquity has prompted the government of Kazakhstan to stage a counter-offensive, and travel journalists to hike to the Central Asian republic in an effort to discover what it's really like. But this misses the point; Kazakhstan is somewhere between a red herring and a MacGuffin. Borat as we know him evolved from earlier Baron Cohen characters who were Moldovan and Albanian. Borat-speak is actually Hebrew with a smattering of Polish. He could have come from anywhere in the world, provided it was obscure.
The same thinking lies behind Daniel Kalder's travel book, Lost Cosmonaut. Kalder's preface is an abstract of the Shymkent Declarations, which resolve that, among other things: "The anti-tourist does not visit places that are in any way desirable... The anti-tourist travels at the wrong time of year... The anti-tourist is interested only in hidden histories, in delightful obscurities, in bad art..."
There's a tenuous link with Borat, in that the Shymkent Declarations are named after a town in Kazakhstan. But Kazakhstan is high-profile, in Kalder's terms; it does, after all, have a seat at the United Nations. We acknowledge its existence, however fleetingly, every four years, when its plucky athletes strut past in the Olympic opning ceremony, and the TV commentator gives us a snippet of trivia about the place.
But Kalder goes where the UN and the Olympics don't. His speciality is seeking those republics that are almost totally autonomous, but are still nominally part of Russia, so aren't quite nations. Tatarstan, historical centre of the Golden Horde; Kalmykia, home of Chess City and the only Buddhist country in Europe; Mari El, hotspot for pagans and internet brides; Udmurtia, where Kalder is pressed to say why he came to such a place, and the best he can come up with is that he likes the name because of its "suggestion of nothingness".
Inevitably, some of Kalder's narrative nudges dangerously close to cheap laughs at the expense of the locals. The "seriously shitty" food in the Sputnik Cafe, where dirt-poor Kalymks take their kids for a treat of gristly meatballs; All Mice Love Cheese, a show for three-year-olds that provides the cultural highlight of the Udmurt State Theater's output; police fail to spot a link when five people within a single square kilometre are decapitated and have their VCRs stolen. A taxi-driver asks Kalder's Japanese companion if he's Yugoslavian. These locals, eh, so dumb and insular, they might as well be... us...
But, like the best travel writers, Kalder's not really writing about these places. He's not even writing about himself, although there's an occasional bout of self-pity and an acknowledgement that he likes films with tits in. He's dealing with something at once bigger and more elusive.
Like Borat, he confronts us with our own ignorance. Those of us brought up during the Cold War still have a tendency to blur the distinction between "Russian" and "Soviet". We can't quite get our heads around the fact that cultural phenomena such as Tofik Bakhramov (the so-called Russian linesman at the 1966 World Cup Final), Olga Korbut and the Chernobyl power station were no more Russian than I'm a Norwegian. (Azerbaijan, Belarus and Ukraine, if you're interested.)
But Kalder goes even deeper than geopolitics. He's at his most profound, and unnerving, when he hovers somewhere over the cusp of national identity and existentialism. "But it is unknown," he muses, "a whole other Europe that might as well not exist for all we Westerners care. In fact, it does not exist for us. They do not exist."
This is Bishop Berkeley territory. If a country suffers, and CNN is not present, does its pain exist? Kalder feels for them. He is, after all, a Scot, another country-but-not-quite. But he knows the best thing he can do is to describe, simply to bring these places into some kind of existence. We might laugh at these hicks, these hillbillies of the Steppes, but isn't that better than being ignored?
Purely accidentally, the publishers manage to express this sense of nowhere, of not-quite-locality, with their North American edition. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, they changed the book's subtitle when it crossed the Atlantic. They also Americanised the spelling and punctuation. But it remains impenetrably British: the experience of consuming Kalmyk tea is described as "like drinking a cup of Bernard Manning's sweat"; Kalder has a Proustian flashback to Littlewood's in Dunfermline. Why will a reader in St Louis be thrown by the diphthong in "faeces" but understand when the author describes something as "shite"? Scribner have founded their own republic, somewhere in the middle of the Pond. But it could never be as bleak and empty and ignored as the places Kalder describes.