Friday, August 16, 2013

Kauffmann, Jean-Paul: A Journey to Nowhere

A French student does voluntary work in Quebec as his national service.   There he meets and falls in love with a local girl whose parents emigrated to Canada from Courland, an area of Latvia.   Although
they consumate their love he leaves her to return to France and they lose touch.   Many years later, he is
a successful writer/journalist and discovers that one of his cousins had a father killed in Courland during
World War II when he was forcibly enlisted into the German army as were many Alsatians, they being
known as the malgre-nous.   Presented with an open assignment by his editor, he persuades him that an
article on Courland would be worthwhile and this book is the result.   It is a mixture of personal narrative covering his time there with his wife, descriptive passages of a number of mansions which had
been built and owned by German descendants of the Teutonic Knights, subsequently dispossessed, some of the relics of the lengthy postwar occupation by the Russians and conversations with some of the present-day Latvians in the region.   There is an overlying melancholy to the book which seems to be a genuine reaction to the state of the area with many of the old buildings in disrepair and the remains of the Russian occupation in a similar condition for the most part.   This is in contrast to the earlier years, in particular the seventeenth century when the then Duke of Courland initiated attempts to found
colonies in Gambia and Tobago and the time in exile for a while of Louis XVIII.   The nineteenth century saw a gradual decline which the novelist Eduard von Keyserling portrays in his works, this despite Libau, the area's main port, being the Russian fleet's home base.   After World War 1 and the
Russian Revolution, the area was independent as part of Latvia until invaded by Russia again in 1939,
then occupied by German troops, many of whom died when encircled during the last years of the war.
Although I read the booking small doses over a period of time I enjoyed it and may well read  the author's earlier work about Napoleon in exile 'The Dark Room at Longwood' and'Desolation Island' about Kerguelen.

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