Gazing into the heart of the past


TRAVEL: A Journey to Nowhere By Jean-Paul Kauffmann, translated by Euan Cameron Maclehose Press, 267pp. £18.99

HISTORY PLAYS CRUEL games, but war disregards any concept of justice. Countries emerge, are conquered, are divided up, are reduced to diplomatic barter only to resurface, their identity altered, changed, confused. Old allegiances are pitted against new, shallow ones. It all leaves the people settled in what has become displaced territory, feeling cheated and very angry.

The wonderful French writer Jean-Paul Kauffmann followed the exiled Napoleon to his final lair on St Helena in The Dark Room at Longwood (1991). Now he sets off to explore a country that no longer exists, Courland, a strangely empty buffer state and part of present-day Latvia. The result is an elegantly ironic account in which Kauffmann magically sustains a tone that is curious, bewildered and slightly regretful.

Before ever arriving there, Kauffmann had been long aware of Courland, a place once ruled by the Teutonic Knights. In time it was occupied by Nazi Germany and then returned to a Russia under Soviet rule. His interest begins in a very personal way. During a stay in Montreal as a young man he becomes attracted to Mara, a girl working in a bookshop. Because of her he becomes very loyal to the store. She has many admirers. He makes tentative advances, none of which works until she notices that he is reading a biography of Louis XVIII: “How extraordinary! He lived in my country.”

The Courland she refers to is really that of her Latvian parents, who had left intending to return after the Soviet occupation ended. When a relative who had stayed disappeared, the girl’s parents decided to leave Europe and settle in Canada. Kauffmann’s romance with Mara gathers apace, only to falter when he returns to France. Courland, scarcely larger than Brittany, has by then become emphatically linked to romance for him. Mara suggests that he read Marguerite Yourcenar’s wartime adventure Coup de Grâce, which is set in Courland between 1919 and 1920.

In common with Claudio Magris and, particularly, the late WG Sebald, Kauffmann has an imagination that thrives on history, literary references, anecdote, lives retrieved and footsteps retraced; he is a natural investigator possessed of equal amounts of patience and tenacity. A magazine assignment is exactly what he needs, a reason to satisfy his need to explore, and a friendly editor dispatches him, convinced by the lure of decaying manor houses built by long-dead Baltic barons. There is also an additional incentive: a cousin is anxious to find out what happened to her father, who died in the war.

Through this woman Kauffmann learns that a man from Alsace makes regular trips to Courland, tracking the graves of German soldiers who died there. He is known as the Resurrector, and he appears to be highly effective, if also elusive: Kauffmann keeps missing him.

Images of the half-forgotten Mara linger in his memory as Kauffman arrives in Latvia in the company of his wife. His first guide is a young female university lecturer on her way home to France. They meet in Liepaja, and she gives him a hurried introduction: “Not a very impressive port, I grant you. But it has loads of history. It was from this docks that the Russian fleet embarked for Japan in 1904. It took over seven months to reach the Korea Strait . . . It all began at this very spot, on the shores of Courland.”

Looking around, he sees a place caught between cultures and contrasting epochs: “Dilapidated houses, rows of ransacked buildings. Surrounded by Ladas in the parking lot, our Skoda does not complain: it belongs to the genuine socialist family but with a more brazen aspect . . . From amid the post-Soviet wreckage one marvel emerges: the Orthodox Church of St Nicholas, consecrated in 1903 by Tsar Nicholas II himself. Four secondary onion domes support the central one, a symbol of Christ surrounded by the four Evangelists.”

As he and his wife study the church, a persistent, rather intimidating young man intent on being hired as their guide offers an unofficial commentary, and he too refers to the Russian navy’s ill-fated encounter with the Japanese. Always good on gestures, icy stares and vocal nuance, Kauffmann reports: “It is at that point that I began to regard this tall devil with his emaciated face and impassive expression . . .”

Dominant among the many vividly drawn individuals, including a range of beautiful if sullen women, is a German tourist referred to throughout as the Professor. This man is travelling with his seething wife and children. A chance encounter resulting from the little girl’s falling ill connects the two parties. The author’s wife is a doctor; she tends the sick child. The grateful German then takes over Kauffmann’s investigation, imposes order on it and demonstrates not only that he knows Latvia but also that he speaks the language, possibly as well as he speaks French. Kauffmann absorbs the information being freely offered while also watching the German couple’s frayed relationship.

Within present-day Latvian life, with its resentment of Russia and Germany, are glimpses of an older world invariably seen through Kauffmann’s study of Courland. The group arrive in Pope, one of the many deserted Courland villages. “The Baroque-style church is situated on a small rise that enables one to look out over the dark mass of forests . . . A grandiose avenue of lime trees leads from the church to the gates of the manor. The trees in our temperate regions are puny compared to these huge, full-grown specimens with their heavy, shapely trunks . . . The grounds of the manor contain colossal oaks and ancient yews clipped in the shapes of pyramids.”

Many of the manors are now schools. The empty landscape has a ghostly allure, while the people are self-contained, as if waiting for history’s next nasty trick.

Physically this is a beautiful book: it draws the reader towards it and rewards on many levels. Kauffmann is informed and sophisticated but always kindly, never knowing, and his polite engagement is brilliantly rendered by Euan Cameron’s graceful translation. Jean-Paul Kauffman is a thinker and a marvellous companion. This singular little odyssey of a book is both profound meditation and erudite joy.

Kauffmann gazes into the heart of times past; he is also a terrific storyteller.

Eileen Battersby is Literary Correspondent