Adam Zamoyski

Ghostly traces of a vanished land

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A Journey to Nowhere: Detours and Riddles in the Land and History of Courland

Jean-Paul Kauffmann, translated by Euan Cameron

MacLehose Press, pp. 269, £

This is an entirely pointless but curiously engaging and even tantalising book. A youthful love affair in Montreal with a girl of Latvian descent plants the word ‘Courland’ in the author’s mind. He finds it mellifluous and somehow magical. The girl’s beauty and otherworldliness add a sense of mystery. An Alsatian cousin whose father, drafted into the Wehrmacht, had been killed there in 1945, prompts darker reflection. The discovery that a workmate at the Paris paper he works for is a descendant of the legendary Duchess of Dino, granddaughter of the last of the Dukes of Courland, introduces an intriguing note of nostalgia for a lost elegance.

Without really understanding why, he is gradually drawn into undertaking a frustrating trip to this mythical land in order to write a magazine article which, appropriately, never gets published. What he encounters there is both a dead-end, a toe-hold at the periphery of Europe which does not appear to lead anywhere, and, more surprisingly, a point of departure in the other direction. It was from Windau, now Ventspils, that ships sailed to establish a slaving station in the Gambia river and to set up a colony on Tobago. It was after a service attended by Tsar Nicholas II in the Orthodox chapel of the now abandoned imperial naval base at Karosta that Admiral Rozhestvensky set forth in 1904 on a seven-and-a-half month voyage that ended with the destruction

of the Russian fleet by the Japanese navy at Tsushima. And it was from Dundaga, a little further north, that the man on whom Crocodile Dundee was based emigrated to Australia.

The author wanders in somewhat haphazard fashion through the country, guided by simple curiosity and a vague need to discover whether ‘Courland’ actually exists. He is baffled by the undemonstrative inhabitants, and finds conversations with them unhelpful; the most garrulous is a polytonal rocker of Russian descent who is himself in search of an identity.

The landscape strikes the author as not just unfamiliar but deeply alien and mysterious. As he moves around, stumbling on a historic site here, an unexpected vineyard there, on derelict barracks and bunkers which conjure ghosts of two world wars, on traces of the Maréchal de Saxe, who ruled there for two years, of Louis XVIII, who spent part of his exile there, he looks to history to unlock the place for him. He seeks out former country houses built by German Baltic barons, and tries to conjure their vanished world by reading the novels of Eduard von Keyserling, himself a member of one of the baronial families displaced by the march of history.

Their history began in the Middle Ages with the Knights of the Sword, who were later superseded by the Teutonic Knights. Courland started out as part trading post, part colony, part Christian mission. In the 16th century it became a vassal duchy of Poland and in 1795 a province of the Russian empire. From the mid-18th century until 1917, these families would provide court favourites and diplomats, command the tsarist army and run the imperial administration.   

The next three years saw bloody fighting, as this class, supported by German freebooters, fought desperately to preserve their crumbling world in the face of the competing ambitions of Latvian nationalists, Bolsheviks and White Russians. They lost, and the Latvian republic that came into existence in 1920 had no use for them — the author finds a descendant of one of them in the person of a car-salesman in Paris.

At the outset of the second world war the area was occupied by the Germans, who despoiled it of its Jewish inhabitants. They were themselves cornered there in 1945 and suffered a variety of highly unpleasant fates. The victorious Soviets viewed the Latvians as inherently pro-German and exacted a gruesome revenge. The country remained part of the Soviet Union until 1991.

Perhaps the most remarkable thing about this small corner of Europe is the fact that the autochtonous people whom Kauffmann finds so difficult to penetrate are still there at all. For the best part of 1,000 years they suffered extreme forms of physical and cultural colonisation of one sort or another. Their country became a battleground on which German and Russian conflicts were played out, twice. Yet they have discreetly repossessed it and are resolutely getting on with their lives. The girl from Montreal is now a grandmother in Courland.

This book is something of a tour de force: while professing his own failure to get to grips with the place, the author leaves the reader with the feeling that he has himself been to Courland and has also been in some subliminal way connected with its past.