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Although I do not much care for travel writing, there are (as with every literary genre) some exceptions: Patrick Leigh-Fermor for one, V.S. Naipaul for another. A new discovery for me is Jean-Paul Kauffmann. His latest work, superbly translated by Euan Cameron, is A Journey to Nowhere (Maclehose Press, £18.99). It describes a journey to Courland, the Latvian peninsula inhabited by the human debris of a history as picturesque and desolate as its windswept landscape.

Kauffmann is driven by an insatiable inquisitiveness about this Baltic backwater. As a student in the late 1960s, he fell in love with a beautiful bookseller at McGill University in Montreal. She turned out to be the daughter of two Courlanders who, like so many of their countrymen, had fled from the advancing Red Army and settled in Canada.

Her name was Mara. Kauffmann recalls their courtship: how attached she was to the distant land that she had never seen but still thought of as home; how writers such as Stendhal and Yourcenar kindled her interest; and how conversations about Courland as he stroked her hand overcame her reserve to reveal an unexpectedly passionate nature. After he returned to France, the lovers lost touch for more than 30 years. 

But in 2001 his publisher forwarded a letter from Mara, now on the verge of grandmotherhood, outlining her life in the intervening decades. When Latvia regained its independence after the Soviet collapse, she had returned with her second husband, an American, to live in her ancestral homeland. Mara had not quite found what she was seeking: "In Canada, I felt I was a Courlander, but now that I live in Courland, I don't see any Courlanders. I realise that the inhabitants have lost their identity. They'll find it again one day, I feel sure."

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Eric Dickens
October 21st, 2016
8:10 PM
Imants Ziedonis was a Latvian writer born in Courland. He wrote the book "Kurzemite" (roughly: "Dear Courland"). Perhaps Kauffmann would like to translate that book into English, if that has not already been done. Kauffmann has met Ziedonis's son Rimants, so a translation must be easy.

July 16th, 2012
1:07 PM
superbly translated? on the contrary, there are a number of elementary translation errors in the text when compared with the French.

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