A bérézina refers, in colloquial French, to “a disastrous situation.” The term derives from the name of a river that the French army crossed in November 1812, in retreat from Moscow after Napoleon’s ill-fated invasion of Russia. The French crossed the Berezina, in Belarus, but suffered heavy casualties, under siege by a vengeful Russian army. The river entered the lexicon as a synonym for catastrophe—and inspired a road trip 200 years later.
In “Berezina: On Three Wheels From Moscow to Paris Chasing Napoleon’s Epic Fail,” Sylvain Tesson, a French writer and traveler, recounts a journey he took with four comrades roughly retracing the French retreat. This is bloody ground to tread. Tolstoy likened the invasion of Russia to “an enraged beast mortally wounded as it charges.” The Berezina crossing was but one grisly node of a military campaign that, in addition to all the death and suffering it brought, was the beginning of the end of the first French empire.
Mr. Tesson’s book, published in France in 2015 and now translated by Katherine Gregor, takes the form of a travelogue, each chapter devoted to a single day on the road. Accompanying the author are two Frenchmen (Gras and Goisque) and two Russians (Vitaly and Vassily). The five ride on Ural motorcycles equipped with sidecars, and the lousy condition of the vehicles becomes a recurring joke: “These machines are robotics of the Soviet industry,” Mr. Tesson says of the Urals just before departing from Moscow. “They promise adventure. You can never tell if they’ll start and, once launched, no one knows if they’ll stop.”
Mr. Tesson jumps back and forth in time, describing both his own journey and the events surrounding the French retreat, interjecting meditations on travel, books and the fate of nations, as well as observations on the local fare: “A Russian dinner consists in slowing down the ravages of vodka by swallowing an onion, some dill, and a small herring.” In Ms. Gregor’s translation, the narration is wry and marked by a cheerful fatalism. Mr. Tesson is a witty and knowledgeable road companion, though at times his grandiose pronouncements—“It’s a madness we get obsessed with, that transports us into myth; a drift, a frenzy, with History and Geography running through it”—may cause eyerolls.
The first day of the trip brings the three Frenchmen (the Russians would link up later) from Moscow to Borodino, the location of a famous French triumph in September 1812. In “War and Peace,” Borodino is the site of Prince Andrei’s mortal wounding. Like Tolstoy, Mr. Tesson notes the cost of the battle for the French. “If we rely on simple statistics and consider the Grim Reaper as an accountant, the Battle of Borodino was a Napoleonic victory,” he writes. “The Russian losses were greater than the French. But as far as victory goes it was a perverse victory. What had the Emperor gained? The right to go a little deeper into the country.” The French took Moscow soon after, but the city’s residents had burned the city and fled. Emperor Alexander I, meanwhile, refused to negotiate with Napoleon. And the retreat would soon commence.
Mr. Tesson’s crew changes spark plugs in the Russian town of Vyazma, where the French army took a beating two weeks after vacating Moscow, and continues west along the “awful” Moscow-Smolensk highway, “where the procession of thirty-three-ton trucks remind [them] in heavy bursts that Russia had joined the free-trade carousel.” While in Belarus, they stand in the presence of the Berezina itself. Mr. Tesson sees a stone slab that bears an inscription: “ ‘Here, the soldiers of the Grande Armée crossed the Berezina.’ A sentence that made nightmare sound like nothing at all.” His description of the Battle of Berezina is certainly gruesome: “People died crushed and stifled. They slipped, fell, tried to get back onto the footbridges, but fell into the water and drowned. The river collected the corpses of men and horses, carriage debris mixed with ice.”
Things take a lighter tone when, a few days later, the travelers reach Warsaw, celebrating their arrival by smoking cigars in the Ural sidecars. But the toll of the Russian campaign lingers over nearly every page. Many of the French who didn’t perish in combat froze to death; others survived by eating their horses, some of which died from sheer overwork. (Mr. Tesson devotes a section to the “equine martyrdom” of the retreat.) Napoleon’s foolhardy decision to march on Russia resulted in an “epic fail” indeed.
A detour through Berlin—“I wanted to drive my motorbike and sidecar at the foot of the Brandenburg Gate, where Napoleon paraded after kicking the Prussian asses at Jena in 1806”—occasions, in contrast to the Russian campaign, memories of French battlefield glory. So, too, does the Invalides, the Paris complex that pays tribute to France’s military history. It is there that Mr. Tesson ends his long trip. His final chapter, detailing his arrival in Paris, features some of his loftiest ruminations—on the meaning of nationhood and the legacy of the whole Napoleonic project—but once his Ural rumbles over the cobblestones of the Invalides courtyard, more immediate concerns come to mind. “I suddenly felt like going home, taking a shower, and washing off all those horrors.”