It’s during a previous journey that the idea of a future one comes to mind. Imagination carries the traveler far from the trap where he’s gotten stuck. While in the Negev desert, he’ll dream of a Scottish glen; in a monsoon, of the Hoggar Mountains; on the west side of the Aiguille de Dru, of a weekend in Tuscany. Man is never happy with his lot, but aspires to something else, cultivates the spirit of contradiction, propels himself out of the present moment. Dissatisfaction motivates his actions. “What am I doing here?” is the title of a book and the only question worth asking.
In just such a way, French author Sylvain Tesson got the somewhat ludicrous idea of traveling across 2,500 miles of Russia following the retreating footsteps of Napoleon Bonaparte as the French general abandoned his ill-planned invasion and returned to Paris. In 2012, with a set of French and Russian buddies, he sets out to make the two-week trip on an old Soviet motorcycle with sidecar. Like his countryman Napoleon, he goes in winter. At least their vehicles, called Urals, are near-indestructible?
On the outskirts of Paris, I missed a turning and drove into the corner of a detached burrstone house. The owner failed to appreciate the poetry of Soviet scrap iron. His wall had been demolished but the motorbike was unscathed.
Along the way, he discusses the historical implications of Napoleon’s flight. On the River Berezina Napoleon’s Grande Armée suffered a fate-sealing loss in battle against the Russians, and the word “berezina” thus took on very different meanings for the people of the two countries. For the French, it echoes the humiliating defeat that it was for the once-glorious Grande Armée, shorthand for a situation that’s an utter disaster. But for the Russians, “berezina” connotes an idea of triumphant national pride. In chronicling this trip, the bunch experience a healthy dose of both meanings.
Tesson plays with this idea throughout, of the very different meanings and implications for the two nations, as they make various stops and he ponders significant battlegrounds or sites from the War of 1812 (this is far less boring than it may sound). Cultural differences are also bandied about, between the two countries historically and between the members of this somewhat ragtag traveling group.
It is endlessly entertaining but also smart and considerate in a way that Tesson is beautifully skilled in. As much as he jokes or teases, it’s clear that it’s loving and deeply respectful, as he’s very appreciative of Russia. There’s a similar tone here, in parts, to the book that made me fall in love with his writing, The Consolations of the Forest, in which he holes up for an extended period in a Siberian cabin.
The stone stela bore an inscription: “Here, the soldiers of the Grande Armee crossed the Berezina.” A sentence that made the nightmare sound like nothing at all.
He’s a seasoned travel writer who has a knack for highlighting interesting locations and putting their historical significance into context related to the present, made all the richer by the space of 200 years between his journey and Napoleon’s retreat. As in Consolations, he imbues this blend of an often nonspecific nostalgia and aching in the soul with unexpected humor. I love reading him because it’s impossible to predict where the narrative will go next, and I say this even as this book follows along a clearly delineated map.
I was…nostalgic for a world I hadn’t known.
There is a sense of heaviness throughout, as the War of 1812 was a terrible, brutal conflict and there were many more to come to Russia, and these scars are vividly evident as they make their way through the countryside, staying in hotels that haven’t been updated since the Cold War and witnessing some of the country’s troubles in various forms. Despite the travelogue format, it’s very internally-focused somehow, as so much of this comes directly from Tesson’s thoughts. He’s a ruminative type, and his musings on Franco-Russian relations, culture, and history are all tinged with a very personal viewpoint. (Not to mention a smidge of Russian toska.)
It reads surprisingly light and fast, despite some darker topics, and ends up being a fantastic history and cultural lesson as well as a constantly amusing ride-along. My high expectations following Consolations of the Forest weren’t disappointed, and his writing even in translation is wonderful. I hope more of it will make its way into English. 4.25/5
From Moscow to Paris Following Napoleon’s Epic Fail
by Sylvain Tesson
translated from French by Katherine Gregor
published November 5, 2019 by Europa Compass
I received an advance copy courtesy of the publisher for unbiased review.