Mr. Sylvain Tesson elucidates to the uninitiated the deeper and transcendental meaning of the word “Doing a Berezina” in the French. Usually denoting an astonishingly unfortunate piece of event fro which a protagonist just about evades the inevitable, the phrase usually means: “We made it by a whisker guys, we felt if fly right by us, we got our fingers burned, but life goes on and Stuff The Queen Of England”
Berezina is also, on a more solemn and somber note, the river across which the Battle of Berezina (or Beresina) took place from 26 to 29 November 1812, between the French army of Napoleon, forced to beat back after a disastrous invasion of Russia, and crossing the Berezina (near Borisov, Belarus), and the Russian armies under the stewardship of Mikhail Kutuzov, Peter Wittgenstein and Admiral Pavel Chichagov. While, the French suffered calamitous losses, the diminutive Corsican Emperor himself avoided being captured or killed crossing the river and speeding off to the safe confines of Paris. Since then “Bérézina” has been used in French as a synonym for “disaster.”
In his book “Berezina”, which is extraordinary in its hilarity, eviscerating in its evocativeness and egregious in its narrative, Mr. Tesson recaptures an incredulous journey performed by him along with four of his friends which takes the form of a recreation of the ‘Retreat’ of the Grande Armee from Moscow to Paris. Powered by the off-road Ural Motorcycles fitted with side-cars, egged on by a mixture of adrenaline and passion and fueled by gallons of Vodka along their way, Mr. Tesson and his accomplices, Vassily, Vitaly, Cedric Gras and Thomas Goisque – two Russian and two Frenchmen respectively, heave, hurtle, groan and grit their way across the expanses of Russia, Belarus, Lithuania, Poland and Germany before finally arriving at the Napoleon memorial in Paris.
“Two hundred years later, I decide to follow the route of the agonising army, of the shocked cavalry, of those skeleton-like infantrymen, of those men with feathered helmets believing in the invincibility of the Eagle. It’s not for a commemoration (do you commemorate horror?), much less a celebration, it’s to acknowledge across the centuries and the verstes, those Frenchmen of year XII blinded by the Corsican sun and smashed on the reefs of nightmares”
A travelogue punctuated with historical accounts, “Berezina” is a sheer and elegantly crafted delight. Holding forth on the potential exhilaration and worthy merits of embarking on such a landmark journey, Mr. Tesson dangles the bait to his fellow perpetrators in crime: “It’s a madness we get obsessed with, that transports us into myth; a drift, a frenzy, with History and Geography running through it, irrigated with Vodka, a Kerouac-style ride, something that, in the evening will leave us panting, weeping by the side of a pit. Feverish….”
Having enlisted support, Mr. Tesson and Co mount their khakhi-green Ural bikes, relics of the Soviet manufacturing era. These “motorcycles with adjacent baskets” according to Mr. Tesson are an obstinate breed. “You can never tell if they’ll start, and once launched no one knows if they’ll stop.” On the 2nd of December, 2012, two hundred years after the French Emperor’s chaotic retreat, Mr. Tesson and his friends stick the French national flag in front of the basket and set forth on their peculiar journey. Inscribed against the tri-colour background in gold letters were the words:
“Imperial Guard; Emperor of the French to the 1st regiment of light cavalry lancers.
Mr. Tesson possesses this remarkable ability to make even the mundane a quintessential element of the metaphysical. Take his ruminations about his motorcycle helmet for example:
“A motorcycle helmet is a meditation cell. Trapped inside, ideas circulate better than in the open air. It would be ideal to smoke in there. Sadly, the lack of space in an integral crash helmet prevents one from drawing on a Havana cigar…. A helmet is also a sounding box. It’s nice to sing inside it. It’s like being in a recording studio. I hummed the epigraph of Celine’s Journey to the End of the Night…”
Blinded by pouring rain and cascading snow, Mr. Tesson with Gras, his friend with a philosophical bent of mind demurely sitting in his side car, faces some perilous bit of navigation to do hemmed in by huge Russian transportation trucks. Even under such discomfiting circumstances, Mr. Tesson finds time to reflect upon the foibles and fragilities of a vulnerable species. What more circumstances than the bloody war of Berezina and the plight of the fleeing French Army to illustrate this universal feature?
“I saw soldiers on their knees next to carcasses, biting into the flesh like hungry wolves,” Captain Francois recalls. Bourgogne himself survived for a few days sucking, ‘blood Icicles’ Even the Emperor had to get out of his carriage and walk leaning on the arm of Caulaincourt or a camp aide. The road was cluttered with dead men and horses, dying civilians and soldiers, crates, carts, cannons and all that the scattering army was losing behind it. Those who were not dead stumbled over the corpses of those who had already fallen. The men advanced through soul-destroying plains. The cold had destroyed all hope, God no longer existed, the temperatures were dropping…. Crazy with suffering, emaciated, eaten by vermin, they walked straight on, from fields covered in dead to other fields of graves. “
However, it is not all cannibalism and autophagy. In between the testimonies of chaos and carnage, Mr. Tesson relieves us of the terrors of war and the tedium of desperation by interspersing his account with an irrepressible and irreverent dose of pure humour, wicked wit and scintillating spontaneity! Consider this blisteringly funny account of an unfortunate eviction from a bar: “We’d been so cold in the past few hours, since Berezina, that we decided to warm ourselves up with peppered Vodka. The first bottle in memory of the French, the second in memory of Russians, and a few extra glasses for the Polish, British and Germans…. The bar manager threw us out after, in between bellows, we’d set fire to the tablecloth by knocking over the candles on our table.”
Or consider this brilliantly matter-of-fact account of Mr. Tesson’s fellow traveler Vassily being bitten by a dog, “”A dog bit Vassily on the calf in the little garden where 2 1/s inch Pak 40 cannons taken from the Germans in 1940 are on display. The blood drew a flower on the snow.”
Napoleon’s ambitions of invading Russia might have been put to paid by a combination of nature, nationalism and naiveté. However, every adverse circumstance and material misfortune brings along with it some of life’s most pristine lessons. Mr. Tesson sure provides us with some of them with panache!