Berezina by Sylvain Tesson
Translated by Katherine Gregor

In my post on “The Honjin Murders“, I mentioned the kindness of other bloggers; and today’s review is thanks to lovely Pam at Travellin’ Penguin, a blog I’ve followed for some time now. Pam wrote about this book back in January and then kindly offered it as a giveaway. Given the subject matter, it was obviously going to be something which would appeal to me, and so I was very excited when I won the book! It made its way from Down Under to me here in the UK (together with some beautiful postcards and a sweet bookmark); and again, because of the subject matter, it recently seemed the ideal book to pick up when I was looking for a little escapism from our present situation…

a picture of the book in this post along with the postcards and the bookmark on a table with russianb memorabilia

Author Sylvain Tesson is a man with an interesting background; a French writer and traveller born in Paris, he’s ranged far and wide over the globe, from Iceland and Borneo to the Himalayas – to name but a few! However, he doesn’t make his journeys easy, often travelling by motorbike, bicycle, horse or on foot; in fact, his trip over the Himalayas *was* on foot, involving a five-month journey of 5000 kilometers from Bhutan to Tajikistan. That’s some undertaking and he’s obviously a man used to hardship…

Man is never happy with his lot, but aspires to something else, cultivates the spirit of contradiction, propels himself out of the present moment. Dissatisfaction motivates his actions. “What am I doing here?“ is the title of a book and the only question worth asking.

“Berezina”, published in 2015, is therefore likely to be a travel book with a difference, and the reason for the journey is fascinating. In 2012, to celebrate the 200th anniversary of Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow, Tesson and a group of friends decide to recreat that journey; however, they’ll travel not on foot or horseback but on ancient Soviet motorbikes and sidecars. The route will take them from Moscow to Paris, jousting with heavy modern traffic and extreme weather, and in itself it’s a real eye-opener.

Now, I’m a lover of travel books; I’ve read masses over the years, following Eric Newby all over the place, accompanying pioneering Lady Travellers rediscovered by Virago, and plodding all over various bits of Russia and Siberia with varied adventurers. However, I’m not sure I’ve read a book with such an intriguing angle as this one. Following the route of Napoleon’s retreat to honour a past conflict is actually quite a moving idea; and as the party is a mix of French and Russian folks, both sides of the war are represented. So, armed with flags and bicorns, the motley crew set off to pay tribute to history and hopefully avoid smash-ups on the way!

As a travelogue alone, the book would be engaging and entertaining; Tesson is a down-to-earth narrator who is nevertheless capable of waxing lyrical about many subjects – well, he’s a Frenchman, isn’t he? ;D However, the book explores quite deeply the whole conflict of 1812, Napoleon’s character and ambitions, the reason his campaign failed and the horrors of the journey away from Moscow and death. And it pulls no punches, discussing how unbearable the conditions of the journey were, how many men and horses died, the awful things that had to be done to survive, and how in the end Napoleon basically abandoned his troops to get back to Paris and save his empire.

Since the explosion of the Internet, a revolution required marketing techniques. What mattered was no longer to take over the administration, overturn the army, and hang the ruler from a meat hook: all you have to do was keep hold of the media fields, come out with speeches, fuel blogs, and prepare a stage for western speakers, hired oraters called upon if the cause turned out to be bankable on the ideals market of the EU.

That element of the book really lifts it above the normal travel book; and the discussion of the past as set against the modern world is quite revealing. The party are at times travelling through parts of the world which were former Soviet territories and Tesson’s thoughtful reflections on how those places have changed are illuminating. Berezina itself is the site of a pivotal battle between the retreating French and pursuing Russians, and it’s significant that the word is now a term used in the Fench language to signify a disaster…

As I said, Tesson doesn’t pull his punches when it comes to facts, and he and his companions obviously know their Napoleon well – as he wryly acknowledges:

All three of us owed our knowledge of Napoleon to recent reading. We could have spent the rest of our lives in libraries, since there had been a new book about the First French Empire published every day since 1815.

Certainly, Napoleon must be one of the most written-about figures in history! And “Berezina” throws much light on him as a general and as a symbol to the French people.

Napoleon by David – via Wikimedia Commons

Needless to say, the travellers arrive home in much better shape than the armies of 1812, and reading “Berezina” just reinforced my feelings about war; how it’s fought by those in charge using the masses as fodder and how those masses are the ones who always suffer. As Pink Floyd put it so aptly:

“Forward” he cried from the rear
And the front rank died
And the general sat and the lines on the map
Moved from side to side

So “Berezina” turned out to be an entertaining and often moving read; its scintillating blend of history lesson and travel worked well, and at times I felt as if I was struggling along through snow and wet and mud and dark and cold with Tesson and his fellows, or the poor retreating soldiers. Although I don’t often travel far, I *do* love to get out and about when I can. Nowadays, it’s having to be travel by proxy and in some ways I’m happy this journey was only a virtual one; the reality would have been very hard to deal with…


As a coda, I wanted to share one of the first pieces of classical music I ever came across (on one of my dad’s vinyl LPs, when I was just a wee lass); obvious, perhaps, but I still love it, especially when the bells and cannons come in – stirring stuff (if probably historically inaccurate….) 😀