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
Eddie Redmayne with his Screen Actors Guild award for Best Actor

film
Arts and Entertainment
Rowan Atkinson is bringing out Mr Bean for Comic Relief

TV
Arts and Entertainment

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment
V&A museum in London

Art Piece taken off website amid 'severe security alert'

Arts and Entertainment
Over their 20 years, the band has built a community of dedicated followers the world over
music
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Reese Witherspoon starring in 'Wild'

It's hard not to warm to Reese Witherspoon's heroismfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Word up: Robbie Coltrane as dictionary guru Doctor Johnson in the classic sitcom Blackadder the Third
books

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Hacked off: Maisie Williams in ‘Cyberbully’

Maisie Williams single-handedly rises to the challenge

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne in The Theory of Everything and Benedict Cumberbatch in The Imitation Game are both nominated at the Bafta Film Awards
Arts and Entertainment

Academy criticised after no non-white actors nominated

Arts and Entertainment
Damian Lewis shooting a scene as Henry VIII in Wolf Hall
TV

Arts and Entertainment
A history of violence: ‘Angry, White and Proud’ looked at the rise of far-right groups

tv

An expose of hooliganism masquerading as an ideological battle

Arts and Entertainment

art

Lee Hadwin can't draw when he's awake, but by night he's an artist

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Keaton in the 1998 Beetlejuice original

film

Arts and Entertainment

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Olivia Colman and David Tennant star in 'Broadchurch'

TV

Arts and Entertainment
Michael Kitchen plays Christopher Foyle in ITV's 'Foyle's War'

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Downton Abbey star Joanne Froggatt will be starring in Dominic Savage's new BBC drama The Secrets

Arts and Entertainment
Vividly drawn: Timothy Spall in Mike Leigh’s ‘Mr Turner’
film
Latest stories from i100
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.

    Syria crisis: Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more refugees as one young mother tells of torture by Assad regime

    Celebrities call on David Cameron to take more Syrian refugees

    One young mother tells of torture by Assad regime
    The enemy within: People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back – with promising results

    The enemy within

    People who hear voices in their heads are being encouraged to talk back
    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    'In Auschwitz you got used to anything'

    Survivors of the Nazi concentration camp remember its horror, 70 years on
    Autumn/winter menswear 2015: The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore

    Autumn/winter menswear 2015

    The uniforms that make up modern life come to the fore
    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    'I'm gay, and plan to fight military homophobia'

    Army general planning to come out
    Iraq invasion 2003: The bloody warnings six wise men gave to Tony Blair as he prepared to launch poorly planned campaign

    What the six wise men told Tony Blair

    Months before the invasion of Iraq in 2003, experts sought to warn the PM about his plans. Here, four of them recall that day
    25 years of The Independent on Sunday: The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century

    25 years of The Independent on Sunday

    The stories, the writers and the changes over the last quarter of a century
    Homeless Veterans appeal: 'Really caring is a dangerous emotion in this kind of work'

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    As head of The Soldiers' Charity, Martin Rutledge has to temper compassion with realism. He tells Chris Green how his Army career prepared him
    Wu-Tang Clan and The Sexual Objects offer fans a chance to own the only copies of their latest albums

    Smash hit go under the hammer

    It's nice to pick up a new record once in a while, but the purchasers of two latest releases can go a step further - by buying the only copy
    Geeks who rocked the world: Documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry

    The geeks who rocked the world

    A new documentary looks back at origins of the computer-games industry
    Belle & Sebastian interview: Stuart Murdoch reveals how the band is taking a new direction

    Belle & Sebastian is taking a new direction

    Twenty years ago, Belle & Sebastian was a fey indie band from Glasgow. It still is – except today, as prime mover Stuart Murdoch admits, it has a global cult following, from Hollywood to South Korea
    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    America: Land of the free, home of the political dynasty

    These days in the US things are pretty much stuck where they are, both in politics and society at large, says Rupert Cornwell
    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A graphic history of US civil rights – in comic book form

    A veteran of the Fifties campaigns is inspiring a new generation of activists
    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    Winston Churchill: the enigma of a British hero

    A C Benson called him 'a horrid little fellow', George Orwell would have shot him, but what a giant he seems now, says DJ Taylor
    Growing mussels: Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project

    Growing mussels

    Precious freshwater shellfish are thriving in a unique green project