French travel writer Tesson chronicles his journey following the route of Napoleon’s 1812 retreat from Moscow to Paris—200 years later, on motorcycle, in winter.
The two weeks documented here represent an adventure, pilgrimage, and challenge against the elements and the weight of history. In 2012, the author and a small group of friends decided to brave the elements of ice and snow on two motorcycles with sidecars, duplicating the route that, two centuries earlier, had been littered with corpses from the well-documented retreat of Napoleon, a “paradox, unique in Human History: an army marched, from victory to victory, toward its total annihilation!” Over the course of the text, Tesson evokes War and Peace, various historical accounts, and Napoleon’s own grandiose confessions, alternating with the contemporary account of following Napoleon’s tragic route. But why? “For the sheer glory of it.” There was much camaraderie on the trip but little glory, as the journey culminated less in triumph than in relief; ultimately, the dangers encountered and the historical horrors conjured hardly seemed worth the risk. As the author notes at one point, “doubt was worming its way into me: what the hell was I doing on a Ural [motorcycle] in the middle of December, with two fools in tow, when these damn machines are made to transport small, 90-pound Ukrainian women from Yalta beach to Simferopol on a summer afternoon?” Yet the meditative aspects of braving the elements on motorcycle offered time to reflect on the enduring legacy of the Franco-Russian conflict on both nations and the rest of the world, the visions that drove Napoleon to his death, and the differences in character between the Russians—in the era after Communism and the Soviet Union—and the French. Both the writer and the reader feel like they’ve really been through something when the journey is done and Tesson concludes, “I suddenly felt like going home, taking a shower, and washing off all those horrors.”
A brief travelogue that bridges and comingles past and present.