Q: Which foreign land that you’ve visited so far was the most impenetrable in your travels — the one that had the most barriers to entry e.g. physical distance, bureaucracy, cost, etc. ?
A: Turkmenistan. I visited during the imperial-hallucinatory phase of the Turkmenbashi dictatorship. It took me over a year to get in, after my first visa application was rejected for unspecified reasons. Journalists were banned from entering the country but I was in the early stages of my writing career and managed to slip under the radar the second time around. It was difficult to find a flight from the UK that didn’t cost far too much money and/or involve multiple changes until a friend with Sikh parents told me that Turkmen Air flew out of one UK city (Birmingham) to Ashgabat once a week, en route to Amritsar. Myself and my two traveling partners were the only ones who got off in Ashgabat.
We had to be accompanied by a tour guide at all times, except in Ashgabat, where the not-so-secret police were visible on the streets, and in the restaurants visited by foreigners, and in cars parked by the roadside. Once, some cops tried to arrest us for being out after dark. The highways between cities were full of checkpoints and we were stopped constantly as we made our way around the country. There was another, less predictable obstacle: Our guide hated Turkmenbashi and only wanted to show us ancient ruins because he denied that there could be anything interesting about the new regime. We were forbidden to take pictures of bazaars, or of pretty much anything that depicted how people actually lived…. it was very much a North Korean-type situation, but achieved with far lower levels of state violence.
I was going to put it all in a work of anti-touristic reportage, but then Turkmenbashi had the effrontery to die on me, and it never came to pass… until now. My new book, The Infernal Library, is a cultural and political history of books written by dictators. After exploring the development of the form from Lenin through Hitler to Kim Jong-un, I end The Infernal Library with an extended meditation on Turkmenbashi’s berserk Rukhnama, and what it tells us about the totalitarian impulse to rewrite reality, and how I saw it embodied in that unhappy land. I heartily recommend everybody reading this to purchase a copy— of The Infernal Library that is, not the Rukhnama, which is awful.
Q: Of all the strange and desolate places you have been to, is there one that remains a clear favorite after all this time?
A: Hard to say. Each place had its own mysteries and secret pleasures, and some have changed a lot since I visited them. For instance, when I visited Mari El the strangeness was all beneath the surface, and I had to dig around to surface it. In 2009, however, the authorities built a shiny new Kremlin in the capital, Yoshkar-Ola, and they have recently erected a replica of the Bruges Embankment for some inexplicable reason. I hear that Mari El is also home to a spanking new monument to Stalin because–well, why wouldn’t you celebrate a man responsible for the deaths of millions?
I do miss the transcendentally ugly suburbs of Moscow, and as I grow older, the more I am fascinated by my birthplace of Dunfermline in Scotland. When I left at age 22, it seemed like just another crap Scottish town on a par with other crap Scottish towns. But now I realize it is a truly cosmic vortex of spiritual and psychic negation. Here is a 1000 year old city, the ancient capital of my people, a former center of mediaeval pilgrimage and… barely anybody remembers or cares about any of it. Saint Margaret used to pray in a cave down by a stream; today her sacred grotto is buried under a car park and can only be accessed via a shed which is locked most of the year. Here is the grave site of many, many Scottish kings, but everybody forgot which ones were buried where, and by the time they found them again, nobody knew whose bones were whose. They can’t even be bothered to dig them up and stick them in a shiny vault for tourists to visit, like they do in other European countries.
But maybe my favorite desolate place is Texas, where I live now. I love west Texas, the Hill Country, the ghost towns, and the many settlements clinging to the soil with a grip so tenuous that it is clear they have another generation or two to go before they are gone forever, like the mammoths and sabre toothed tigers that once lived here. The great void is always calling to us, but here you can hear it loud and clear.
Q: Similarly, you’ve met lots of really interesting characters in your travels. Is there one or two that stand out in your memory, above all others?
A: Unquestionably the Siberian messiah, Vissarion Christ, who I wrote about in my second book, Strange Telescopes. Formerly a Soviet traffic cop by the name of Sergei Torop, he one day realized that he was actually the son of God and then established a community of 4000 followers in the wilderness. Since I published that book many journalists and TV documentary makers have gone out to talk to him, but I was one of the first non-Russian writers to ascend the mountain where he lives and conduct an interview.
I think Vissarion represents a complex and fascinating phenomenon. To think you are one person, and then discover you are a supernatural entity, and then convince lots of people more intelligent than you that you really are the messiah, and then persuade them to sacrifice all their comforts to live with you in a frostbitten wilderness… this is not something that is easy to achieve, nor is it to be dismissed lightly, however tempting it may be to snigger.
Many 20th century dictators adhered to similarly preposterous belief systems and they were even more successful in persuading people to follow them. Ludicrousness is no obstacle to success. There’s a moral in there, and it’s an alarming one.
Q: What would be on your wish list for new places to visit — which unwelcoming, strange and/or desolate places interest you the most currently?
A: I would like to spend more time in Turkey. It’s actually a very welcoming place, but one led by a deeply unpleasant man. I visited Istanbul a few years ago and Erdogan was obviously a shady character back then even though (at the time) writers for The Economist were pretending otherwise. That he was intent on dismantling the modernist project of Ataturk and replacing it with a 21st century mish-mash of authoritarianism, religion, shopping centers and smartphones, while retaining Turkish nationalism, was not hard to see. If I went again, I’d go beyond the capital and dig deeper into the competing ideologies and identities contained in that ancient territory.
Tajikistan and the other Central Asian states fascinate me. Turkmenistan in particular is ripe for a revisit. I’d love to see the Chinese industrial mega cities that people rarely write about. Eritrea, the “North Korea of Africa,” would be interesting. It would be cool to spend some time at the Chicxulub crater in Mexico, or to spend more time in the Russian Far East, visit Sakha/Yakutia, the Arctic Circle, Magadan, return to the suburbs of Moscow….
Q: Of all the faraway places you’ve been to, is there one whose weird charm was enticing enough that you considered staying, either permanently or semi-permanently?
A: Not so far away, in fact. I live about 90 miles south of Waco, Texas and I have often contemplated what a life spent navigating the exotic psychic terrain between the Branch Davidian compound, the Dr. Pepper Museum and the Port-O-Jon’s chemical toilet depot out by the pauper’s cemetery would be like. And now that the rapacious Chip and Joanna Gaines have established a gouging machine at the heart of the city, where each week tens of thousands of visiting home improvement pilgrims are thoroughly fleeced by their idols, the contradictions of this peculiar city have only multiplied still further.
A few years ago I met the Polish author Andrzej Stasiuk and he took me to see Dukla, a town that he was obsessed with. It was a nothing town, but he visited it every weekend for years and then wrote a book about it. I’d do the same for Waco if I thought I could get away with it. It offers much richer material than Dukla.