John Shaw

A backward Nowhere

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Molvania: A Land Untouched by Modern Dentistry

Santo Cilauro, Tom Gleisner and Rob Sitch

Atlantic Books, pp. 176, £

There are hundreds of references to Molvania on the Web, and one airline shows passengers a video about the place, but it is not on the maps. Michelin does not mention Molvania. However, this book locates it ‘north of Bulgaria and downwind of Chernobyl’. A new Mittel-Europa republic emergent, Slovakia-like, from the fall of the Curtain and the Wall?

The first clue to the mystery is the publisher’s logo, Jetlag Travel. The second is the London launch date, which was 1 April.

Like Ruritania and Shangri-la, Molvania is on the atlas of imagined countries, not, however, for matinee romance or high adventure, but as the subject of a hilarious spoof of a backpacker Baedecker. The tone is Lonely Planet meets Monty Python.

The authors, like the creators of the Planet series, work in Melbourne. They claim no knowledge of their subject area but, with wild irreverence and endless ingenuity learned from scripting television and film gags, they have devised an original black comedy in the form of a guide to an almost credible composite of a decrepit post-Soviet backwater, wartcsz and all.

Intending visitors are advised that Molvanians are a rough lot, much given to strong drink and insults. They also love a laugh, ‘preferably at someone else’s expense’. This could also be said of the authors, whose political incorrectness spares no sensitivity.

After centuries under despots of various colours, Molvania is now free to enjoy such glasnost rights as television pornography, heroin and the mafiosi of the ruling Peace Party while maintaining such traditions as donkey polo, swigging garlic brandy, mule-beating, rat-baiting and spitting at strangers.

‘Molvanians love eating out,’ we are told, ‘especially in France.’ At home their favourites include horseflab, a pickled meat, entrail soup and parsnip pudding. Restaurant food is dodgy and there is a ten per cent charge for use of cutlery. The national drink is turpz, a white wine spiked with resin and nicotine. Cabbage-flavoured milk shakes are Molvania’s innovation in fast food. It remains the world’s leading exporter of spittoons, gherkins and beetroot.

In science there is less success — the wheel was not re-introduced until the 1930s — but in 1963 the Splutfab, a rocket fuelled by turpentine, became the first space craft to land a man in Poland.

Membership of the EU awaits several reforms: witch-burning is still legal, the national anthem reviles gypsies and the government bars nuclear inspectors. Some Molvanian reactors have cracks dating back to the 1960s.

The capital, Lutenblag, on the River Uze, is smothered in factory smog, but the guide reports that officials promise to replace brown coal fuel with diesel oil by 2010. Lutenblag’s gas-powered tram system is extensive (for Laard from Spitlbrik change at Stenchh, for example).

In the provinces there are such attractions as Mt Czarbunkle, a snowless ski field; the Great Plain, a desolate steppe recently granted Unesco World Heritage status as ‘a site of significant monotony’; a bombed cathedral still swathed in 1948 scaffolding; and towns with names with snigger value such as Bumkrak, Upchuk, Vajana, Skrotul, Crud and Stinckhoff.

Sometimes the pace of parody seems to falter. There are a few dull patches and flat fillers about rural customs and folk music. But perhaps these are intended as rests between guffaws or sly send-ups of the pedantic ethnography relished by the backpacker brigade.

One travel warning is omitted. If you’re into black humour and piss-taking this is the funniest book in years, able to induce fits of helpless laughter which may make you miss your train or bus stop and disturb mobile-phone-users.

In the last joke of the book the publishers promise, or threaten, that other places will get the Molvanian treatment. Let’s Go Bongoswana, Surviving Moustaschistan and Getting Around the Tofu Islands are said to be in preparation.