Simon Leys, The Death of Napoleon, translatd by Patricia Clancy and the author (Black Inc 2006)
This book imagines that Napoleon escaped from exile in St Helena through a brilliantly complex conspiracy, and that the man who died on he island was an impersonator. Napoleon starts out planning to contact his loyal followers and regain power, but – not a spoiler really – that doesn’t happen. So what does a great military strategist and statesman do when deprived of his army and any possibility of rebuilding his power base? What effect does it have on him to take on the identity of a lowly corporal? Can his skills be turned to any other purpose, and what happens if he tries to reveal his true identity? It’s an intriguing and entertaining premise, and it unfolds in precisely realised, sometimes very funny, scenes and crystal-clear language.
This is the only work of fiction by Belgian-Australian scholar Simon Leys (real name Pierre Ryckmans), who is best known, I think, as a learned commentator on Chinese politics and culture. Written in 1967 in his native French it was first published as La mort de Napoléon in 1986. The English translation is copyright 1991, and this edition, which includes a fabulously taciturn Author’s Afterword, was published in 2006.
L’Académie royale de langue et de littérature françaises de Belgique, of which Ryckmans was a member, comments on its website (link here) that this book ‘seems to have found its true mother tongue in its English translation’. Certainly the cool, ironic yet still respectful narrative voice feels comfortably Australian. Even leaving aside the twist in the title – Napoleon’s death is announced fairly early in the narrative, but our hero, the real Napoleon, lives on – the story has plenty of clever twists and surprises, always justified by character, and the final tragicomic movement should be predictable but wasn’t predicted by me.
I’ve only read one other of Simon Leys’ books – not fiction, but written with a novelist’s attention to the telling detail and the emotional force of events: The Wreck of the Batavia and Prosper (my blog post here). I wonder if we should regret that he didn’t write more fiction.
My copy of The Death of Napoleon is on loan from my Book Club.