28 December 2016

Sylvain Tesson: Sur les chemins noirs (2016)

After a drunken and near-fatal fall from a building, the writer Sylvain Tesson spent four months recovering. He chose an unconventional form of 'ré-éducation': walking the length of France, which was a change from Russia, Tibet, South America, or any other far-flung places he's written about his journeys through before.

He chose to begin near Tende, near the Italian border with France, and go through Provence, across the Rhône and through the Massif Central and the Loire valley to the tip of the Contentin peninsula. He often camped rough or stayed at simple hotels along the way, drinking Viandox (a meat stock product similar to OXO (ugh!)) at cafés he passes, and occasionally being joined by friends such as the writer Cédric Gras or Arnaut Humann, or on one occasion his sister. But the general rule he was following, greatly aided by IGN maps, was wherever possible to use chemins noirs – an expression once used in Provence writer René Fregni's book title Les Chemins noirs – and which are applied to old untarmacked roads or footpaths deep in rural France.

Tesson has a number of things against technology: he hates the telephone, hates the thought that the government has a scheme for 'connecting' areas that it designates as in a state of 'hyper-ruralisation'. New technologies don't simplify life but are a substitute for it, they remodel the human psyche, block out thought. We are becoming the most docile and submissive people in the history of the world. By taking the chemins noirs we go through the crack in the wall.

And Tesson certainly has a point: the chemins noirs are as much mental paths as physical ones, as much an anarchistic way of looking at life. He reminds us that Napoleon said there are two kinds of people: those who command and those who obey. But Tesson suggests there's a third kind: those who run away, refuse to accept whatever fate is preparing for them.

All the same I can't can't help thinking that Sylvain Tesson couldn't have communicated with his friends using a poste restante address and guess that he didn't use telepathy, so he surely must have made use of the dreaded new technology to let his friends know where he was. And his friend Humann – incidentally a camera enthusiast – must have used a t........ to contact medical assistance when Tesson had an epileptic fit on the way. (Just thinking aloud.)

This is a thought-provoking book which at 142 pages could easily be read in a few hours, although it's far more advisable to take your time, act as if you're on a chemin noir, and use a map while reading it so you can trace out the fascinating paths.

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