Friday, August 28, 2020

L'Axe du loup - Sylvain Tesson in the steps of escapees from the Gulag - The solution could be to carry in your gear an inexhaustible book

In May, I wrote about French travel writer Sylvain Tesson’s In the Forests of Siberia (2011), the book on his long, lonely stay in a cabin on the west shore of Lake Baikal.  Now I have read an earlier Tesson book that is a germ for Forest, a crazy mostly-solo walking / bicycling / horseback trip from Yakutsk to Calcutta, Wolf Axis: From Siberia to India in the steps of the escapees from the Gulag (L'Axe du loup: De la Sibérie à l'Inde, sur les pas des évadés du Goulag, 2004, all translations mine).

The steps are: south across the Siberian taiga, down the east shore of Lake Baikal, onto the Mongolian steppe, across the Gobi desert, up into Tibet, across the Himalayas.  Plus some detours.  Six thousand kilometers, eight months.  And he only takes one book with him!

The “wolf axis” of the title is the north-south axis, contrasted to the east-west flow of people, history and war between Europe and Asia.

Tesson is nominally following the route of Slawowir Rawicz, a Polish officer who claimed to have escaped from a Siberian prison and walked to India, the subject of his 1956 book The Long Walk.  That Rawicz’s book is some mix of fiction and accounts from other escapees is of interest to Tesson, but not of great relevance.  He is skeptical of Rawicz when he starts, and more skeptical when he finishes.  “A lesson here: when publishing a story floating on the edge of credibility, never say that you saw a yeti” (250).  But Rawicz describes a journey Tesson, whose specialty as a travel writer is Russia and central Asia, wanted to do for himself.  He thinks of his own book as a tribute to all of the escapees from the Gulag, and for that matter other refugees along the way, Mongolian, Chinese, or Tibetan.  Many of the most interesting parts of the book are Tesson’s encounters with people who had been in the Gulag themselves, or who were descended from the criminals, Old Believers, Decemberists, and other people sent into the Siberian forests by various Russian governments.

The French love these “in the steps of” travel books.  Who doesn’t.  Tesson bicycles from Lhassa to Darjeeling in the company of his friend Priscilla Telmon, who makes travel documentaries.  She crosses Tesson’s path because she is walking in the steps, from Vietnam into the Himalayas, solo, of the great traveler Alexandra David-Néel.  The French really love this kind of traveling.

Tesson ends the book with a list of everything he brings with him.  There is one book, “An Anthology of French Poetry (Jean-François Revel, Bouquins),” a seven hundred-page brick.  He says it took him ten years of hard traveling to come to this solution to the bookish backpacker’s great problem:

The solution could be to carry in your gear an inexhaustible book.  When I went around the world on a bicycle, I left with religious texts (Bible, Koran, etc).  These are inexhaustible texts, but they exhausted me.  During my long hike in the Himalayas I had novels which eat themselves (Melville, Wells, Hemingway): I devoured them in three days in the light of yak butter candles, and my soul remained hungry during the seven remaining months.  At the base of the Asian steppes, in the company of Priscilla Telmon, I had bound in our horse’s panniers old accounts of voyages (Rubrouck, Marco Polo, Fleming), but I found it too cruel to compare the description of the past to the sad reality of today, and too depressing to enter Samarkand through a post-Soviet industrial suburb while reading, in the pen of Ella Maillart, the evocation of “a blue village, soaring towards the sky.”  (119)

That passage, besides all of the fun book stuff, gives a good example of Tesson’s sensibility and humor.  I intentionally kept one enjoyable Frenchism in the translation, the books that “eat themselves (se mangent)”; we know those books.

A true French writer, Tesson has a habit of reaching for aphorisms that I take as an aspect of his literary culture.  A French thing.

In Darjeeling, I take the time to do two or three important things.

I visit the zoo to see the red pandas, one of the beasts of Creation to which I attach the most value.  The two Darjeeling specimens chew on their carceral despair in a concrete enclosure.  The difference between animal and man is that when they are imprisoned, the first remains beautiful while the second becomes a beast.  (256)

I don’t think British or American travel writers aphorize so strongly.  Few of them would really go for that last sentence.

I don’t think L’Axe du loup is in English.  Maybe someday.


  1. Alright! Reading project. Rawicz, Tesson, Tlooth.

  2. i read the Rawicz 60 years ago and still remember it; i thought it was authentic at the time, but... i admit to reading a couple of chapters of Tesson's Forest but quit because of the bad stuff which i don't like to think about...

  3. It doesn't seem to be in English which is a real shame because I enjoyed his Berezina very much. Oh well... :(

  4. "novels which eat themselves" is such a good phrase. And this is such a good post.

  5. An escapee project, fictional and otherwise. That is a good idea.

    Daniel Beer's The House of the Dead: Siberian Exile under the Tsars (2017) is a good supplement to Tesson, in addition to the obvious Soviet-era books, Kolyma and Solzhenitsyn and so on, of which I have read almost nothing.

    The definitive debunking of Rawicz was published in 2006, just a bit after Tesson's book. Still, who knows what pieces of the book are true, even if they happened to someone else.

    I don't remember the bad stuff in Forests. Maybe I don't like to think about it either. It did get awfully cold outside that little cabin.

    Just the two Tesson books in English, I guess, Forests and Berezina. There are many more in French, oh so many, including quite a number of short stories set in the places he has visited. I have read a few and thought they were good.

  6. Jeanne, thanks. A real translator would turn "novels which eat themselves" into something more like normal English, but the idea is clear enough, at least to people like us.

  7. I must be one of those weird French who are NOT tempted to read Tesson, despite or maybe because of all the hype around his books and travels.

    That said, this last quote is quite good.

  8. Even better in French. He is a real writer, with his own voice. Although that also means one can simply not like the voice, not want to spend time with that guy.

    It cannot hurt that I am separated from the hype. I do not see Tesson in every newspaper, on television shows, every year, book after book after book. It can easily become too much, even with a writer I like.

  9. I don't think I've heard of either Tesson or Rawicz outside of your blog. Sacré bleu! Thanks for filling me in--sounds good in general plus that yeti line is a nice dig.

  10. Tesson is a major figure in France, possibly too visible, as Emma suggests, as a literary celebrity. No idea why he has made no impression in English.

    Rawicz's book I first saw on that National Geographic list of great adventure books, with the caveat that the great debunking of Rawicz came after the voting on the list. They didn't know. Even if the yeti was a blatant clue.

  11. Great post, Tom. (Nice translations, too.) Hope this book makes it into English. I take your point about the aphorisms. Some Anglo-American travel writers might go for that sentence (Philip Marsden, maybe) but only lightly or ironically.

  12. Thanks. I wonder if the book is getting to old to ever make it into English.

    There is a French tendency to emulate La Rochefoucauld, to create the perfect sentence, all by itself. They are trained for it from a young age.

    You have certainly made Marsden sound interesting, in that Caucasus-set book you read.