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Deft turns pepper Napoleon's final lap

The Death of Napoleon, by Simon Leys, translated by Patricia Clancy and the author. Published by Black Inc., 2006. ISBN 1 86395 334 5. RRP $19.95.

http://www.blackincbooks.com/blinc/forthcoming_titles/index.htmlFirst published in 1991, Belgian-born Australian-resident Simon Leys’ novella has enjoyed the dual distinction of being set as a senior secondary school English text, as well as being made into an almost forgotten, unsuccessful film with the eponymous hero played by everyone’s favourite Bilbo, Ian Holm. In this re-issue, the author has provided an afterword at the request of his publisher: two brief pages that emphatically avoid explaining anything about the book or its processes, but which engage you through their common sense and a sharp, vitriolic dig at those responsible for that unfortunate film.

The concept around which Leys builds his flimsy plot involves an imaginative flight for author and reader. Napoleon escapes from St. Helena, his place taken by "a humble and loyal sergeant" while the emperor works his anonymous passage on a ship sailing back to Europe. The conspiracy to restore his monarchy falls to pieces when the ship misses its landing at Bordeaux and sails on to Antwerp. Napoleon finally arrives in Paris to find his linkman dead, the conspirators aged and useless, and his occupation gone completely when the news breaks that the false Napoleon has died.

What comes across as the most impressively wielded element in this plot’s improbable, if not impossible progress, is its circling around the topic of death. Of course, the expected conclusion comes with Napoleon’s obscure and ludicrously commonplace fatal illness. But the initial drive behind the emperor’s escape comes from an unknown mathematician who sets in train a vast conspiracy in which, according to best underground movement practice, nobody knows anybody else. This prime mover has actually died two years before Napoleon takes up his supernumerary status on the Bordeaux-bound Hermann-Augustus Stoeffer. Although the escapee eventually (and again, improbably) returns to his capital, the almost-resuscitated restoration plan founders on the death of Napoleon’s contact. Then, the final nail is pounded into the coffin of his ambitions with the apparent death of the faux-emperor.

http://www.blackincbooks.com/blinc/forthcoming_titles/index.htmlWhat leaps out from The Death of Napoleon is the author’s humour, illustrated by the deft turns that pepper this final lap of Napoleon’s life, which lurches from one unfortunate hurdle to a final, insurmountable impasse. Marooned in Paris as the live-in lover of a greengrocer’s widow, Napoleon is taken by the one man who has recognised him to an asylum populated by inmates who believe, all twenty of them, that they are the emperor. In a tersely accomplished turn-around, the author teases us as well as his hero, with a ludicrous and implacable identity crisis: you say you are the emperor, but so do these men—and there is no proof that you are telling the truth. In the end, all that Napoleon has for consolation is the sadly comic death-rattle delusion that another successful day of battle is dawning.

Leys follows an elliptical path, allowing his readers enough latitude to bring their own experience to bear on the novella, desisting from spelling out details that can be taken as common knowledge, are capable of quick Google-assisted verification, or which border on the fantastic without quite spilling over the edge. When he lands back in Europe, Napoleon takes the opportunity to revisit Waterloo, which he finds transformed into a latter-day theme park, complete with fake memorabilia and a pseudo-veteran who saps at the emperor’s world by his distortions and lies about the momentous battle.

Unlike Joyce’s Stephen—standing back from his creation, indifferent, paring his fingernails—Leys maintains his ironic position, both amused by his hero’s progress and sympathetic to him. For all that authorial kindness, Napoleon remains a remote figure, probably because at only one point does he launch into action: organising with the immense military skill of another Wagram the sale of a consignment of over-ripe melons. For the most part, he remains a curiously passive figure, a fortuitous historical oddment.

At certain points in the book’s progress, Leys takes time out to explore those moments when Napoleon is faced with psychological quandaries as well as physical situations that border on the insoluble. But there are two moments of descriptive stasis that themselves border on the over-ripe. The first comes early when a fellow sailor rouses Napoleon to watch an extravagantly coloured dawn. The memory of this same sunrise is the final sight that comes to him on his deathbed. A neat enough device but in the context of this work’s spare style, the implementation of such circular symbolism seems contrived. Still, it serves as a momentary distraction from deft, lightly accomplished entertainment.



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