Sylvain Tesson

October 2, 2013

417VGbQN-wL._AA160_I came across this French traveller and writer a couple of years ago, and I’m still trying to decide what to make of him. I can’t really class him as an explorer, because I don’t really think there are any of these nowadays, with travel generally being so straightforward compared with long ago (sweeping statement, I know, but this is my blog), so maybe ‘extreme traveller’ would fit the bill. He goes to faraway places, and spends a long time there, with a purpose, and endures considerable, though self-chosen, hardships, and then writes about them, very well.

L’Axe du Loup hasn’t been translated into English. I had to read it, because Tesson was fascinated with the book The Long Walk by Slawomir Rawicz, which claims to be an account of an escape from a Siberian gulag by a group of Polish prisoners during the Second World War, and how they trekked to freedom south through Siberia, Mongolia, the Gobi Desert, and Nepal to India. I say claimed, because much recent research has thrown doubt on Rawicz’ story, and it seems more likely to have been a composite account of what many prisoners went through at the time, and certainly to have been possible, though not actually achieved by the man himself. See wikipedia for details. Tesson decided to try and make the journey himself, on foot, carrying everything with him. It’s a fascinating and gruelling journey; he’s well aware that he’s chosen to make the journey and can opt out at any moment, that he doesn’t have to beware of everyone he meets lest they send him back to the gulag, that he can stop and rest, and that he can carry food with him. He makes the journey, and demonstrates that it could have been done; his descriptions of the route and his encounters are very interesting. Sadly (and I know I’m beginning to sound like a broken record) the maps are poorly drawn.

Tesson is clearly fascinated by Siberia: Dans les forets de Siberie has been translated into English and is well worth the time and effort. He decides to spend six months (February to July) in a small, isolated cabin on the shores of Lake Baikal, and this is his diary of his time there. In some ways it’s a retreat and journey of self-discovery – can he cope? He does visit people and is visited, too; he has ample supplies of food and can supplement them with fish, and he has an inexhaustible supply of vodka and cigars, as well as reading matter. The observations of the seasonal changes are well described, and the peace and tranquillity seem very welcoming, though clearly considerable inner resources are needed to cope with such isolation, but he does talk of returning. He is a person who clearly find our hectic society of noise and continuous consumption unbearable, and I have a lot of sympathy here; his reflections are worth reading.

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