Sunday, August 01, 2004

KRT Wire | 08/01/2004 | A Hemingway odyssey: from Kazakhstan to Key West

KRT Wire | 08/01/2004 | A Hemingway odyssey: from Kazakhstan to Key West

A Hemingway odyssey: from Kazakhstan to Key West


Knight Ridder Newspapers

KEY WEST, Fla. - (KRT) - It took Vladimir Malikov - surely Kazakhstan's only official Ernest Hemingway look-alike - two years to figure out a way to make it from the country's former capital, Almaty, to Key West, Fla.

Last week, he arrived in Central Asian style.

Along the way, the 66-year-old pensioner hawked personal property, had friends raise money for him, says he received a $1,400 grant from the Soros foundations network and took up quarters at a Key West hotel affixed to a youth hostel.

All of this to be a part of the July 24 Ernest Hemingway look-alike contest, an annual Key West rite that draws hundreds of pot-bellied men with copious amounts of facial hair and a certain swagger hoping to become "Papa."

"I was trying to find a way to get here and I found a way," Malikov said through an interpreter. "It was my dream, and I did it."

Malikov - who does not speak English, but sure loves American pizza - survives on a $60-a-month pension in the strapped former Soviet republic.

When he showed up in Key West with about $500 and no credit card, the hotel where he thought he had reservations sent him packing. That's when John A. Klausing, general manager emeritus of Sloppy Joe's - a legendary Hemingway haunt and the contest sponsor - stepped in.

"He was all by himself so I had to put him up in a hotel," Klausing said. "We're taking care of him."

Malikov's hobbies - wine-making and berry gardening - aren't standard-issue pursuits for Papa contenders. He doesn't drink, either, and the pipe between his teeth is stuffed with tissue. The only performing "talent" he says he has is writing and reading jokes and stories - in Russian.

In 2002, Malikov read about the look-alike contest - now in its 24th year as part of the annual Hemingway Days festival - in a Russian newspaper, then checked it out on the web. That's when he swore to find a way halfway across the world.

"When I was young, I was a wrestler, I'm a fighter. I'm fighting through everything to get through life," he said.

Malikov said he began reading Hemingway as a teen in the Soviet Union. His current favorite: "The Old Man and the Sea."

His first trip to the United States was partially underwritten, he said, by the Soros foundations' Open Society Institute, which has spent more than $40 million in Kazakhstan, mostly on issues like education, legal reform and HIV/AIDS.

A New York-based Soros spokeswoman could not immediately confirm whether Malikov received a grant.

"It's very possible he was given a grant for research on Hemingway. It is highly unlikely that he would be given a grant for anything that would include participation in a look-alike contest," Laura Silber, a senior policy advisor, said.

Malikov said the nonprofit underwrote a round-trip plane ticket to Chicago, from where he eyeballed a host of Hemingway sites he plans to write about.

He's also visiting daughter Yelena, who is pregnant in Milwaukee.

Among Malikov's missions in Key West: Obtaining the signatures of other Papas on the back of a shirt he had printed especially for the Key West pilgrimage. In pink letters on the front is a list of the cities he traversed to get to the contest - Almaty, Moscow, Chicago, Key West.

`When I get back to Almaty, I will wear this T-shirt and I will say, `This is me, and these are my friends,'" he said.

To assist bearded buddies who might be geographically challenged, Malikov toted a tiny plastic ball imprinted with a map of the world.

Even among hard-core Hemingway wannabes, who are fairly nonplussed, this one was considered a bit exotic.

"We've had `em from Brazil, Germany, Ireland, South Africa," said 1997 Papa look-alike winner Bart Barton. "But we've never had any from Kazakhstan."


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