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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.


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