Thursday, November 02, 2006

Going nowhere

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.


Anonymous said...

I find your article to be quite profound and found you via the culture tag on technorati. I'm studying digital media theory and the idea of the virtual world as a real alternative place. The lines are blurring where people create their own identities - avatars. I'd never thought of it in terms of movie and culture but I can reference one book we read that was quite the same gist written in the '60s for political communications (a complete nobody rises to be a presidential candidate). Same idea. You question national identities and geographical places which is a simultaneous blurring of real boundaries where the real and known becomes less important than the fiction and narrative that entertains. ???

Tim F said...

Glad you found something of interest, motherpie. If you really want your mind blown in the digital media theory camp, do check out my pal Patroclus. She leaves me standing.

Was the book Being There by Jerzy Kosinski, btw?

Anonymous said...

I must get this book. Being from a more *other* place than even Scotland. I can sympathise. While we were getting the shit blown out of us and living in a cultural wasteland in the seventies we were on the telly. But to the English journalists that arrived here we were as foreign (and as awful) as some former soviet republic is now. I still remember the rather disgusted expressions on their faces. 'Just look at what the curious natives are up to now.' Stays with you, being patronised I mean.

Anonymous said...

Yes, the book was Being There, thanks. And yes, I checked out Patroclus' sites - one of which looked like a fine splog, the other made me laugh.

I just put up a post after reading your link to Berkeley, the philosopher, as it related to a hot subject in NYC media circles.

Billy said...

Bernard Manning's sweat. Ew!

I don't like Borat that much, but I was watching the TV show on the TV and was impressed with his improvising skills and also how daring he is. I'd be bricking it doing what he does.

Tim F said...

The question is, Doc, do you want to be from somewhere that's known for bad stuff (NI then) or is ignored (NI now)? Oscar Wilde on (not) being talked about (and he went to school in Enniskillen).

Mother: Berkeley's hot? Bloody hell, they'll be disinterring St Thomas Aquinas next.

Billy: True, but has he ever done live TV? There's always a safety net...

Word verification is tumzsp, probably some kind of gastric bypass.

St. Anthony said...

Can't make my mind up about Baron Cohen, as he's playing his cards close to his chest. Is he doing a Lenny Bruce or a Bernard Manning?
Jimmy Carr apparently sued Jim Davidson for pinching his gags, causing Stewart Lee to remark that if Davidson can lift your material unaltered, you might want to look at your material.

I do agree with what you say about Borat coming from somewhere other, somewhere out there. It must be deeply ingrained in the Western psyche (well, it's a universal human trait)- you look at the blanks on the map and write 'here be dragons'.

Unknown said...

Borat's gone the way of Ali G - he was once a subversive way of getting pompous asses to let their guard down and make fools of themselves, but turned into "Aren't poor people funny!"

Tim F said...

I think you're both right - SBC starts off as Lenny Bruce, but as soon as his character starts to be familiar, Manning kicks in. A bit like Alf Garnett, a creation that lost its shock value (and radicalism) by the time it went into colour. But when he's still got the power of surprise, he's very dangerous (in a good way).

I haven't seen the Borat film, but I thought the Ali G one was utter cack. It didn't go down too well in Thailand, oddly enough...

Dick Headley said...

I too have had enough of Ali G and I'm getting that way with Borat. Of all Baron Cohen's characters I've boiled it down to Bruno of Funky Zeit. I believe Bruno will be the next one to saturate the media.

Molly Bloom said...

Anyone who is prepared to break boundaries is fairly brave. But, like you TV? I can't bear Ali G though.

Brilliantly written Tim.

sexy said...