MacLehose Press, £18.99

A Journey to Nowhere By Jean-Paul Kauffmann (trans. Euan Cameron)

A quest for one of Europe's vanished states brings close encounters with past and present

There is a Courland Bay in Tobago. The blood of the dukes and duchesses of Courland runs in the veins of all the royal dynasties of Europe. Even that all-Australian action hero Crocodile Dundee was a Courlander. But what, and where, is Courland?.

Travelling west from Riga, you cross the river Dvina into Kurzeme – known in German as Kurland, in French as Courlande, in English Courland. Now a province of Latvia, this tiny duchy, founded by the Teutonic Knights in the Middle Ages, was constantly threatened by its larger neighbours Poland, Sweden, Russia and Germany. Yet for two centuries it flourished as a semi-independent state and even, briefly, a player on the world stage.

As a student in Québec, the author fell in love with a young woman called Mara, whose parents had emigrated from Courland. Though the romance faded on his return to France, his fascination with this little-known country remained, nurtured by quixotic anecdotes and the novels of Eduard von Keyserling, an all-but-forgotten writer who, like a Baltic version of the Sicilian Giuseppe di Lampedusa, chronicled the last days of the region's German aristocracy.

Thirty years later, commissioned to write an article on Courland's historic mansions for a French magazine, Kauffmann sets off with his wife Joëlle in a hired red Skoda. As he prepares, a cousin asks him to contact a mysterious figure known as the Resurrector, who unearths and identifies the bodies of German soldiers killed in the Second World War. Among them was her father, one of the French Alsatians, known as malgré-nous, unwillingly conscripted into the Wehrmacht.

Once the author sets foot in Latvia, the Resurrector proves as elusive as Courland itself. The settings of Kauffman's previous, much-acclaimed travelogues have been sparsely populated: the sub-Antarctic Kerguelen Islands, and Longwood, the house on St Helena where Napoleon spent his exile. In post-Communist Latvia, he finds himself baffled by the discrepancy between imagination and reality.

Gradually, though a series of chance encounters, the country begins to exert its spell on him – and his book on the reader. In the onion-domed cathedral at Karosta, a Russian naval base under both tsars and Soviets, a fierce young man articulates the bewilderment of the Baltic republics' ethnic Russians, settled there by the Soviet regime and now despised intruders: "We were invincible!"

After Joëlle, a doctor, assists at a medical emergency at their hotel, they befriend a German couple. The two men fall into a companionable routine of competitive pedantry, sparring over scraps of historical knowledge and trading good-natured Franco-German insults that gently skirt around the region's terrifying history.

Even Courland's plucky ascent to geopolitical influence under its energetic 17th-century ruler Jacob Kettler cannot remain untainted, for it was based on slavery; the Duke's surname, by a grim irony, means "chain-maker".

Kauffmann and Joëlle prolong their stay into November in a minimalist house beside a remote tree-fringed lake, where the nature of this secretive land, with its dark, ice-bound winters and fierce, brilliant summers, unfolds.

Like his improbable hero Louis XVIII, who spent his long exile in Courland, Kauffmann knows how to play a waiting game. Oblique, discursive and at times exasperating, his narrative proves a rich and thought-provoking meditation on the vicissitudes of history, memory, identity, and the tenacity of human nature.

 

Buy A Journey to Nowhere (MacLehose Press) from independentbooksdirect.co.uk for £15.99 (RRP £18.99) including postage or call 0843 0600030

Arts and Entertainment
Word master: Self holds up a copy of his novel ‘Umbrella’
books
Arts and Entertainment
Hare’s a riddle: Kit Williams with the treasure linked to Masquerade
books
Arts and Entertainment
The man with the golden run: Daniel Craig as James Bond in 'Skyfall'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
'Waving Seal' by Luke Wilkinson was Highly Commended in the Portraits category

photography
Arts and Entertainment
The eyes have it: Kate Bush
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Art
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard, nicknamed by the press as 'Dirty Diana'

Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
The X Factor 2014 judges: Simon Cowell, Cheryl Cole, Mel B and Louis Walsh

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gregg Wallace was caught by a camera van driving 32mph over the speed limit

TV
Arts and Entertainment
books
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Iain reacts to his GBBO disaster

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Outlaw Pete is based on an eight-minute ballad from Springsteen’s 2009 Working on a Dream album

books
Arts and Entertainment
Cara Delevingne made her acting debut in Anna Karenina in 2012

film
Arts and Entertainment
Simon Cowell is less than impressed with the Strictly/X Factor scheduling clash

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Gothic revival: artist Dave McKean’s poster for Terror and Wonder: The Gothic Imagination
Exhibition
Arts and Entertainment
Diana Beard has left the Great British Bake Off 2014

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Lisa Kudrow, Courtney Cox and Jennifer Anniston reunite for a mini Friends sketch on Jimmy Kimmel Live

TV
Arts and Entertainment
TVDessert week was full of the usual dramas as 'bingate' ensued
Arts and Entertainment
Clara and the twelfth Doctor embark on their first adventure together
TVThe regulator received six complaints on Saturday night
Arts and Entertainment
Vinyl demand: a factory making the old-style discs
musicManufacturers are struggling to keep up with the resurgence in vinyl
Arts and Entertainment
David Baddiel concedes his show takes its inspiration from the hit US series 'Modern Family'
comedyNew comedy festival out to show that there’s more to Jewish humour than rabbi jokes
Arts and Entertainment
Puff Daddy: One Direction may actually be able to use the outrage to boost their credibility

music
Arts and Entertainment
Suha Arraf’s film ‘Villa Touma’ (left) is set in Ramallah and all the actresses are Palestinian

film
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes': US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food served at diplomatic dinners

    'I’ll tell you what I would not serve - lamb and potatoes'

    US ambassador hits out at stodgy British food
    Radio Times female powerlist: A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    A 'revolution' in TV gender roles

    Inside the Radio Times female powerlist
    Endgame: James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    James Frey's literary treasure hunt

    Riddling trilogy could net you $3m
    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    Fitbit: Because the tingle feels so good

    What David Sedaris learnt about the world from his fitness tracker
    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Saudis risk new Muslim division with proposal to move Mohamed’s tomb

    Second-holiest site in Islam attracts millions of pilgrims each year
    Alexander Fury: The designer names to look for at fashion week this season

    The big names to look for this fashion week

    This week, designers begin to show their spring 2015 collections in New York
    Will Self: 'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    'I like Orwell's writing as much as the next talented mediocrity'

    Will Self takes aim at Orwell's rules for writing plain English
    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Meet Afghanistan's middle-class paint-ballers

    Toy guns proving a popular diversion in a country flooded with the real thing
    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Al Pacino wows Venice

    Ham among the brilliance as actor premieres two films at festival
    Neil Lawson Baker interview: ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.

    Neil Lawson Baker interview

    ‘I’ve gained so much from art. It’s only right to give something back’.
    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

    Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
    The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

    The model for a gadget launch

    Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
    Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

    Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
    Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

    Get well soon, Joan Rivers

    She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
    Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

    A fresh take on an old foe

    Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering