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The conceit of this short but deep novel is that just before his purported death in exile on St. Helena in 1821, Napoleon Bonaparte manages to switch identities with Eugene Lenormand, a noncommissioned officer chosen for his resemblance to the former Emperor, by those plotting Napoleon's return to the throne, and brought to the island aboard a cargo ship posing as a deck hand. Napoleon makes an unlikely substitute for Lenormand--being singularly unsuited to taking, rather than giving, orders--but his inappropriate haughtiness with the unsuspecting ship's officers and crewmen attracts the allegiance of the ship's black cook. Perhaps his race, and the prejudice he will have faced, give him some insight into how one can be one of Nature's noblemen, but be treated like a serf by society. In one of the most fascinating scenes in the novel, the cook gets Eugene/Napoleon out of bed to come observe a spectacular sunrise. The effect is transformatory:
Under the spell of that extravagant splendor, so unexpectedly presented to him, Napoleon was momentarily made one with Eugene, reconciled with himself by the impact of an ecstasy that obliterated both his dream of glory and his present humiliating condition.
And this moment proves something that only the cook had suspected:
[H]e felt very pleased with the success of his initiative, and above all, he was proud of his own perspicacity. He had been able to pick out Napoleon from the common sailors, for whom he had nothing but contempt; from the beginning, he had guessed that this was a different breed of man--almost his equal.
It's pleasingly anti-democratic that Mr. Leys suggests that it's in his reaction to beauty that the cook can identify Napoleon as superior to his fellow crewmen.

The plan to restore Napoleon to his throne begins to go awry when the ship bypasses Bordeaux and sails on to Antwerp. Forced to travel by land across Belgium, his trail takes him through Waterloo, which he discovers has been turned into a tourist destination, where his history has been written and is up for sale. A trip to the battlefield is particularly appalling, as is a cafe, which he's never seen before, with a sign that boasts: VISIT NAPOLEON'S BEDROOM! THE EMPEROR SLEPT HERE THE NIGHT BEFORE THE BATTLE! In effect, he no longer owns his own past:
He muses. He has always had the unshakable conviction that all the setbacks that have happened in his life, even those that seemed the most painful and futile, must in some way or another actively contribute to the working out of his destiny. There is no doubt in his mind that the bizarre pilgrimage he made that morning [to the battlefield] was also part of that mysterious grand design, but for the moment he gives up any attempt at exploring its obscure significance. Perhaps it was necessary to stir up the shadows of a vanished past in order to realize more clearly that, from now on, the only true Napoleon is the one who belongs to the future--a future that awaits in Paris!
But that future will not be the "destiny" he has in mind.

When finally he gets to Paris, after a participant in the conspiracy finds him in Waterloo, he ends up staying with the widow of a greengrocer, who had fought in his army. The plan had been for the real Eugene Lenormand to reveal himself as an impostor and inform the world that the Emperor is once again on the loose, but when Lenormand dies suddenly it is logically assumed that Napoleon has died and so "Napoleon" ceases to exist:
He shivered: from now on his destiny was posthumous.

In the days that followed, the full horror of his new situation became clearer still.

In a Europe which could not find a single adversary worthy of opposing him, the dismemberment of states, the carving up of empires, the dethronement of kings were hardly challenges to him...But now an obscure noncommissioned officer, simply by dying like a fool on a deserted rock at the other end of the world, had managed to confront him with the most formidable and unexpected rival imaginable: himself! Worse still, from now on Napoleon would have to make his way not only against Napoleon, but against a Napoleon who was larger than life--the memory of Napoleon!
He has an amusing glimpse of his longed for glory when the widow receives a new shipment of melons and he organizes a campaign to sell them all, exploiting climate, terrain, intelligence, mobility, etc. However, the futility of staking his rightful claim to be Napoleon is driven home when a local doctor, who's recognized him but is jealous of his burgeoning relationship with the widow, brings Napoleon to an asylum the grounds of which are littered with madmen making the same claim. Escaping from this place of false Napoleons, but unable to recapture the mantle of the true Napoleon, he returns to the widow to try to place in a world where he's effectively dead.

Mr. Leys pares this tale, almost a fable, down to its bare bones, so that it hums along. But I did find myself wondering what he has to say about the questions he's raised, about how we are defined somewhat by those around us and by what/who society says we are, but that, at the same time, greatness is as recognizable in a deck hand or a green grocer as in a general or an emperor. There's much sly wit in the situations and, though he doesn't necessarily try to make us feel sympathy for Napoleon, he does let us see the terror that a loss of identity might inflict, and that does make us at least pity him. It's a deceptively simple but really thoughtful book.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Historical Fiction
Simon Leys Links:

    -Simon Leys Homepage (Duffy and Snellgrove)
    -ESSAY: Teetering on the Very Brink of Barbarity (Simon Leys, 4 July, 1995, The Age) -ESSAY: Model Comrade: FUSHUN: The Creation of a Communist Ideal, 1962 (SIMON LEYS, SEPTEMBER 27, 1999, TIME Asia)
    -ESSAY: Confucious and the Scholars: East Asian technocrats and modernists in Beijing, among others, are eagerly embracing an updated Confucianism -- even as scholars in the West ask some eyebrow-raising questions. Did the Chinese sage really exist? If so, did he have much to do with the religious and ethical system that bears his name? Could Confucianism have been invented by Jesuit missionaries? (Charlotte Allen, April 1999, Atlantic Monthly)
    -ARCHIVES: Simon Leys (NY Review of Books) -ARCHIVES: "simon leys" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW: of The Analects of Confucius translation and notes by Simon Leys (Word Trade)
    -BOOK LIST: Anne Enright's favourite slim volumes: Death of Napoleon (The Guardian)

    -INFO: The Emperor's New Clothes (2002) (Imdb)
    -FILMOGRAPHY: Simon Leys (Imdb)
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    -PROFILE: of Ian Holm: A Minimalist's Multiple Napoleons (PETER KOBEL, June 9, 2002, NY Times)
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Book-related and General Links:


    -ARCHIVES: napoleon (Find Articles)
    -BOOKNOTES: Napoleon Bonaparte by Alan Schom (C-SPAN, October 26, 1997)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon Bonaparte by Alan Schom (DAN WICK, SF Chronicle)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon Bonaparte by Alan Schom (LEE CEARNAL, Houston Chronicle)

    -BOOKNOTES: Andrew Roberts, Napoleon & Wellington: The Battle of Waterloo and the Great Commanders Who Fought It (C-SPAN, January 12, 2003, 8pm/11pm)
    -ESSAY: THE EMPIRE BUILDER WHO NEVER WAS.(Robert Cecil Salisbury) (Andrew Roberts, October 1999, History Today)
    -ESSAY: Churchill and the revisionists (Andrew Roberts, March 1997, History Today)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon by Paul Johnson (Andrew Roberts, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of A History of the English-Speaking Peoples (Andrew Roberts, History Today)
    -REVIEW: of The Gladstone Diaries vols 12-14 (Andrew Roberts, History Today)
    -ARCHIVES: "andrew roberts" (Find Articles)
    -REVIEW : of Napoleon And Wellington by Andrew Roberts (Jane Ridley, Spectator)
    REVIEW: of Napoleon and Wellington (Max Hastings, This is London)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon and Wellington (Jeremy Black, History Today)
    -REVIEW : of The Man who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of Geroge Scovell by Mark Urban and Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts (Geoffrey Moorehouse,The Guardian)
    -REVIEW : of Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts (George Lucas, Financial Times)
    -REVIEW : of The Man who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of Geroge Scovell by Mark Urban and Napoleon and Wellington by Andrew Roberts (Jason Burke, The Observer)

    -REVIEW: of Napoleon by Paul Johnson (Andrew Roberts, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon by Paul Johnson (Conrad Black, Daily Telegraph)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon by Paul Johnson (Hazel Mills, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon by Paul Johnson (
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon by Paul Johnson (
    -REVIEW: of Napoleon by Paul Johnson (

    -REVIEW :  The Rise And Fall Of Napoleon Bonaparte: Volume I: The Rise by Robert Asprey (Douglas Johnson, The Spectator)
    -REVIEW : of The Rise and Fall of Napoleon Bonaparte: Volume Two, The Fall by Robert Asprey (Richard Vinen, Financial Times)

    -REVIEW : of Mark Urban's book, The Man Who Broke Napoleon's Codes: The Story of George Scovell (Mark Urban, The Guardian)

    -REVIEW: of Napoleon Bonaparte: England's Prisoner, The Emperor In Exile by Frank Giles (Douglas Johnson, The Spectator)

    -REVIEW : of Wellington: A Military Life by Gordon Corrigan (Andrew Roberts, booksonline uk)
    -REVIEW : of Wellington: A Personal History By Christopher Hibbert (Richard Lamb, Literary Review)

    -On-line editions of Horatio Nelson's dispatches and letters ( The War Times Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Nelson: The Man and the Legend By Terry Coleman (The Economist)
    -REVIEW: of Losing Nelson by Barry Unsworth ( Jules Siegel , SF Chronicle)

    -BOOKNOTES: Simon Schama, Citizens: A Chronicle of the French Revolution (C-SPAN, July 14, 1989)