Andrei Tarkovsky's film Stalker, released in the USSR in 1979, radiates an enduring sense of mystery and disquiet. I have seen it five times, though viewing can feel like a penance. Tarkovsky does not set out to entertain: some of his shots last up to seven minutes. The plot? Three middle-aged men undertake a journey through an industrial wasteland in search of an elusive place called the Zone, where the normal laws of life are mysteriously suspended. With its watery images of disused chemical factories and silted urban waterways, the film cries out for exegesis. What does it mean? Geoff Dyer first saw Stalker in 1981 while a student at Oxford; 30 years on, Zona is his non-fiction appraisal of the film and what it means to him today.
On one level, Dyer notes, Stalker can be read as an allegory of Everyman who sets out in quest of salvation in this life. The film is fraught with portents of death and the mystery of life after death. Tarkovsky's Russian Orthodox faith suffused his imagery with an icon-like poetic stillness.
Much of the film was shot in the industrial edgelands round the (predominantly Lutheran) Estonian capital of Tallinn. The Red Army had detonated warehouses and hydro power plants in their retreat from Tallinn in 1941; half a century on, Tarkovksy used them as locations.
My mother, who grew up in Tallinn in the 1930s, was within earshot of the detonations and can still recall a sequence of far-off booms. The film is, among other things, a hymn to industrial sumplands and sites where urban meets pastoral. In such places, Tarkovsky found beauty rather than a jagged ugliness.
Along the way, Dyer commends the director's uncanny gift of foresight. Stalker was shot ten years before the Chernobyl disaster of 1986, when radioactive dust settled over the Ukranian flatlands round the wrecked nuclear core. The Zone could almost serve as a mirror-image of the exclusion zone round Chernobyl's abandoned power plant, where inhabitants still bear the tell-tale mark of cerium pallor and have taken to vodka with a vengeance. In this sense, Tarkovsky was not only a visionary and poet, "he was also a prophet (of a future that now lies in the past)." The stalker himself, with his expression of "furrowed anxiety" and "generalised unhappiness", guides people through a closed-off terrain pregnant with danger and forebodings of nuclear meltdown and the Gulag.
Lars von Trier's film Antichrist is dedicated to Tarkovsky, but Dyer rightly descries it as "repellent and silly". The grasshopper attention spans of cinema-goers these days are woefully ill-suited to Stalker. Tarkovsky contrived some of the most beautiful extended shots in film history; he must be anathema to video pop promo directors like Guy Ritchie and Danny Boyle.
In a typical aside, Dyer muses on his childhood visits to an "abandoned, brambly" train station in Cheltenham and his fantasy (as yet unfulfilled) of having sex with two women simultaneously. The revelation might strike readers as vulgar, yet Tarkovsky's Zone is supposed to have the power to fulfil a person's innermost desire: why not (Dyer suggests impishly) that of three-way sex? Throughout, the writing is of an aphoristic grace and concision, suffused with humour and a delight to read.
Ian Thomson's 'The Dead Yard: a story of modern Jamaica' won the Royal Society of Literature Ondaatje Prize 2010