Sunday, 20 May 2007

The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

As you know Napoleon was imprisoned and then exiled by the British to the island of Saint Helena (2,800 km off the Bight of Guinea in the South Atlantic Ocean). Sick for much of his time on Saint Helena, Napoleon died on 5 May 1821. Well this is not true, he dies in Paris in the 1830’s with his wife frightened that he was going mad claiming to be Napoleon!

This is a gem of a tragic-comedy in which we follow Napoleon (he leaves an impersonator behind) first as a ship hand on a whaling ship full of monotone Norwegians and a larger then life Negro cook. Ironically, he gets teased and named Napoleon for his officious manner. Due to stormy weather they land at Belgium rather then the port intended so the conspiracy starts to fall apart. Napoleon stoically and silently tries to get to Paris but all the time chaos and misunderstanding arise leading to him touring the Waterloo battle grounds and encountering the myths and sharp practices developing around his life. Making Paris, he is about to make the contacts to summon France to its destiny when it all unravels on the receipt of really bad news. Lost, he uses his skills to help the widow of one of his loyal fellows and so starts to be trapped in a life not of his making.

If you have ever seen Monsieur Hulot's Holiday staring Jacques Tati, then you will have an immediate feel of the comedy and pathos of this short novel. The prose is joy to read and hear. Moreover, it covers a whole range of serious issues lightly: the kindness of strangers, Myth and reality, commercialism of history, militarization of commerce, etc. A small masterpiece that I strongly recommend.

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