Friday, May 20, 2011

book review: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

"Other napoleons came and went around him; in the middle of the lawn, where a patch of white mist now hovered, one of them peered into the shadows through a cardboard telescope; another spread an old newspaper on the stone balustrade, as if it were a staff map. There were some who sat astride rusty garden chairs, lost in thought."

Fiction should play with truth and reality and this whole story does it wonderfully. Starting off with the premise that Napoleon has escaped from his prison island St Helena to be replaced by a double the story charts what might happen.

The Emperor heads back to France leaning on the planning of an organisation dedicated to restoring him to power. But delays and bad weather means he is diverted and there is a wonderful moment when Napoleon goes with some British tourists to see the battlefield of Waterloo.

he finally manages to get back to Paris but without money or friends has to take refuge with a widow of one of his old loyal infantrymen. he uses his strategic skill to restore the fortunes of her melon business revealing to some of those around him as a result he is who they had thought he was.

But with the death of the double all those miles away on the island Napoleon can no more reveal who he is. Who would believe him and the fear that came with knowing he was still alive is snuffed out like a flame.

As he wanders through the gardens of an asylum watching the other napoleon's take the air before returning to the hospital his predicament as a pretender fully dawns on him.

This story is fun in the sense it takes one of the great historical 'what if' and takes it to a conclusion but it is also a disturbing prod at the question of identity. What does it mean to have your identity taken away from you, particularly when it's permanent through death? What does it fell like to have no one believe you?

One of the themes that emerges is that even those that followed Napoleon blindly into musket fire and the face of canon balls had no idea what he actually looked like. But the legend was stronger than reality and the idea of an aging, balding and over weight Napoleon returning from the dead to over throw the French establishment is one that even his most loyal foot soldiers will not b able to support.


parrish lantern said...

I think it was Genet, who said that the poet was a liar, who could only tell the truth & I think that pretty much holds up for all writing. Am liking the idea of playing with the history of Napoleon to create a new take on it & playing with the idea of identity can provoke some interesting thought processes.

Barry Freed said...

Hi, what a pleasant surprise to come across this very recent post as I've only just finished the book today (which is great btw) but I was puzzled by the ending and most blogs and reviews I've found are quite old. So, in your opinion, what exactly do you think is going on with that last paragraph and especially that last sentence? N***r-Nicholas (N-N, i'll call him)extending his arm at the sunrise of course mirrors his action in showing Napoleon the sunrise on the ship. So is this Napoleon's delusion on his deathbed, imagining himself in the field again and N-N is also a part of that delusion, or has he never left the ship, or is this all N-N's imagining as that final sentence is told from his point of view? Sorry to drop in here like this and unload but I'd love to discuss this novel further. Cheers.