Saturday, July 1, 2017

The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys

As he bore a vague resemblance to the Emperor, the sailors on board the Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer had nicknamed him Napoleon.  And so, for convenience, that is what we shall call him.

Besides, he was Napoleon.

It's the mid-19th century and Napoleon has escaped from his exile on St. Helena, leaving behind a lookalike.  He's planning to return to France under the name Eugene with the help of a complex network of supporters.  On the ship where he's disguised as a sailor, his peers nickname him Napoleon because of his resemblance to the emperor, but the Emperor's most devoted followers on the ship are taken aback that anyone could compare this clumsy and ugly little man to their idol.

Simon Leys' small and funny novel explores the nature of identity.  Who is Napoleon, if he's walking around disguised as someone else?  Is he still Napoleon, or is Napoleon really defined by the uniform, and the adulation of his followers?

At the very moment, it was an obscure army sergeant who was cast in the role of the wounded eagle, of the solitary prisoner, of the tragic exile, while the true Emperor existed only as a vision of the future.  Between the persona he had shed, and the one he had not yet created, he was no one.  For a time, Eugene would have to fill this blank interval with his mediocre existence; he had no right to a destiny of his own; at most he could be granted inglorious little misfortunes and a few petty pleasures.

The ship is blown off course and Napoleon enters Europe without his network of supporters to help him reclaim his identity.  He visits the battlefield at Waterloo, where every inn advertises, "Napoleon slept here," and fraudsters try to regale him with their first-hand accounts of the "battle."  He makes it to Paris, but instead of starting a revolution, becomes attached to the widow of an old fruiterer.  The Paris sections of the novel produce two great, funny moments: One is when a jealous rival traps Napoleon in a mental hospital where everyone thinks they're Napoleon.  The second is when Napoleon rediscovers his strategic skill and charisma, only to use it in service of selling the widow's stock of melons:

1. The time factor
The heat wave which we are now experiencing does not, on the face of it, favor our campaign, since it makes the melons ripen quickly.  In reality, it also contains an element that could benefit us, one we should exploit to the full, and that is the thirst it creates in the townspeople.  If we act swiftly there is nothing to stop us form turning these weather conditions to our advantage.  Indeed, swiftness of action will allow us to make use of the inherent advantages of the situation (i.e., the increased thirst of potential customers), and to avoid the harmful effects (progressive stock loss through spoilage).

Napoleon's melon-strategy is funny, but also sad in the way that all mock-heroics are sad.  Do grand actions have to take place over a grand scale?  Could every successful fruiterer be, in his way, a Napoleon?  Is every Napoleon at heart no more admirable than a successful fruiterer?  These are old, old questions, but Leys manages to imbue them with a fresh sense of humor and a simple pathos that makes The Death of Napoleon affecting.

No comments: