Courland, now part of Latvia, was between 1561 and 1795 a wealthy, independent Duchy that maintained extensive trading links with Western Europe, possessed colonies in Africa and was a centre for shipbuilding and manufacturing. Since then it has been variously annexed by Tsarist Russia, Germany and the Soviet Union, and, sitting on the meeting point of the Scandinavian, Germanic and Slavic worlds, it proves a fascinating mixture of the familiar and unexpectedly foreign for journalist and travel writer Jean-Paul Kauffmann. But what might one hope to find on an expedition to a country that no longer exists?
Having first heard of Courland from Mara, a former lover, when he was a student in Canada in the 1960s, Kauffmann seems at first to be looking for something: a notion of the country of Mara’s birth; the character of the Courlandians; the grave of his cousin’s father, forcibly conscripted by the Nazis and killed in Courland in the Second World War. He finds none of these things, but, in a captivating and circumlocutory fashion, gleans amongst the ruins built by Courland’s various rulers half-glimpsed images of European history and of his own past. A complex, meditative mixture of memoir, travelogue and history, A Journey to Nowhere is a compelling exploration of the notions of identity, nationality and the capriciousness of memory.