A Journey to Nowhere: Among the Lands and History of Courland by Jean-Paul Kauffmann

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A Journey to Nowhere: Among the Lands and History of Courland by Jean-Paul Kauffmann

Category: Travel
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: John Lloyd
Reviewed by John Lloyd
Summary: A definitive book about a lost corner of Europe, and a fine travelogue.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 288 Date: April 2012
Publisher: MacLehose Press
ISBN: 9780857050366

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When I turn to travel writing, it is a healthy balance of that about places I have been to, and places I've not. But without sounding too big-headed it is seldom places I have never heard of in any context - especially those I have passed through, what's more. The 'nowhere' in focus here is Courland, which was more-or-less the coastal slither of the top of Latvia, and was once an independent Duchy. In one fell swoop Kauffmann seems to become the only travel writer to have written a book about the place, at least for many a generation, and, it's pleasant to say, probably the best one could have hoped for.

He can be a little too confident about his reading of body language and nature in those he meets, but he can also directly portray the sights of his travels, as he gets the job to visit a patch of Europe that had long held an interest for him, due to an old friendship thirty years previously. The result then is a perfect balance of arty (and literary) impressionism, and the more journalistic form of travel writing that in lesser hands might just as well declare 'don't bother following me, you'll only see x, y and z the same as me'.

And of course there is a lot to see in this nowhere. The towns and cities have the token buildings of note - castles, churches. The spirit of domestic pride goes as far as every village having some kind of museum - generally empty of custom, and a bit worthless. But there are great, entertaining contrasts - historic dockyards from where Courlanders left to change the world, and from where Soviet sailors tried the same centuries later; and palatial country estates where rich Germanic dynasties had houses for generations before the 1917 revolution.

But like the best novels, there is too much I cannot reveal. That's partly down to the people he meets - from Latvia and elsewhere, and the surprising famous ex-pats. But mostly it's down to the place itself. It's a region obviously recognisable, yet with its own qualities. We are well and truly in a Europe... he confirms to himself, only to repeat later It could have been anywhere in Europe. Yes, it's clearly Europe, but a very sparsely-populated and seldom-visited region. I deducted tiny marks here and there due to unrealistic (and unrealistic recall of) dialogue, and some Scrabble master-level words, but Courland has gained the richest, championing accompaniment on these pages.

I must thank the kind publishers for my review copy.

Little covers Latvia in fiction - The Dogs of Riga by Henning Mankell is about it. Our list of travel books had not yet reached this corner of the world either.

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Buy A Journey to Nowhere: Among the Lands and History of Courland by Jean-Paul Kauffmann at Amazon You can read more book reviews or buy A Journey to Nowhere: Among the Lands and History of Courland by Jean-Paul Kauffmann at Amazon.com.


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