It is a war story. It is a motorcycle touring story. And the two stories happened 200 years apart.
Most motorcycle touring is planned to occur when the weather gods may smile upon the journey.
Not so in the case of Sylvain Tesson’s Berezina: On Three Wheels from Moscow to Paris Chasing Napoleon’s Epic Fail.
No. For reasons perhaps more linked to some compulsion to suffer as the Grande Armee of French Emperor Napoleon I suffered in its miserable retreat from Russia in 1812, Tesson and his loyal co-sufferers opted to make the trip in winter, as the French did.
Mounted upon three Ural motorcycles with sidecars—or “baskets” as Tesson refers to them—the riders retraced Napoleon’s retreat from Moscow to Paris in 2012 on the bicentennial of that military disaster.
With writing that is at various times hilarious, introspective, contemplative, professorial, disturbingly graphic, and always engrossing, Tesson weaves the tale of a historical motorcycle tour quite unlike most any you will ever read.
Beside Tesson, the ride includes French collaborators Gras and Goisque and, for historical balance, Russians Vitaly and Vassily.
Whether you are a history buff with an interest in the Franco-Russian War of 1812 or not, he sets the narrative hook and reels you in.
For starters, the journey got off to a rocky start with Vassily and Vitaly not leaving Moscow with the other riders because their Urals needed work. Undaunted, Tesson, Gras and Goisque left Moscow together; all three on one hopelessly overloaded Ural.
Gras and Goisque took turns riding pillion and in the basket, while Tesson did the driving, at times, he relates, blinded with his helmet face shield hopelessly coated with frozen vapor.
When they left Moscow on Dec. 2, 2012, it was 1.4° F, sloppy, snowing and just plain dangerous to be out on the public roads with three grown men on the Ural. Or anything else but a large over-the-road truck, for that matter. Tesson relates:
“So, we backfired along Kutuzov Avenue. Moscow, the large capital of iron, steel, tears and stars, was pushing us out through the West Gate, the name of which is associated with all the woes of the Grande Armee. On the same avenue, a car brushed past us, the window opened and a young Russian with a pointy nose shouted, “Tired of life, are you, guys?”
“’Shut up you jerk,’ I said. Driving does not raise the standard of your thoughts.”
Tesson commented on the Ural motorcycle and his counter-intuitive passion for the brand, saying: “The Ural factory keeps churning out identical machines. They’re the only ones to resist modernity. They go up to fifty miles an hour. They travel through the countryside, devoid of electronic devices. Anybody could repair them with a pair of metal pliers. They date from a time when man was not a slave to electronics, when the steel industry ruled by its simplicity.”
“For the past twenty years, driven by a blend of fascination and masochism, I’ve been buying these machines. As a matter of fact, I would have liked to die while on one of them.”
More than once on the journey, conditions seemed right to give Tesson his wish. Despite the mechanical vagaries of the Urals, in 13 days, the 2,500-mile distance from Moscow to Paris is somehow covered, with reverent and enlightening stops at various monuments to the slaughter of 1812 along the way.
Slaughter is the correct word for it. Napoleon invaded Russia in June of 1812 with 450,000 men and 1,000 cannons. By the time he straggled back, fewer than 40,000 starving, frozen wretches were left of his Grande Armee.
Somehow, Tesson mixes a retelling of such immense tragedy into a motorcycle travel adventure that is fun to read. At times, you don’t know if you should laugh or cry.
The journey and the writing are reminiscent of the gonzo style and talent of the late Hunter S. Thompson. The trip is the kind of sheer lunacy he would have been all-in on and it is told with the kind of vigor and blunt clarity he was famous for.
But Tesson is not channeling HST; in his own style, he is as original and as entertaining in word and deed as any writer you may name. Berezina: On Three Wheels from Moscow to Paris Chasing Napoleon’s Epic Fail may grab you so firmly, you’ll consider going out and getting a Ural to take a mid-winter motorcycle journey of your own; my advice—dress warm, bring tools and get a helmet with a heated face shield.
- Title: Berezina-On Three Wheels from Moscow to Paris Chasing Napoleon’s Epic Fail.
- Author: Sylvain Tesson
- Published: First published in 2015, English translation edition published 2019 soft cover. 177 pages. Measures 4.75” x 7.0.” 2 black & white map images.
- Publisher: Europa Editions, 214 W. 29th St., New York, NY 10001 www.europaeditions.com firstname.lastname@example.org
- ISBN: 978-1-60945-554-5 MSRP: U.S. $15.00 U.K.