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.
Years ago, when he was in his teens, Alex explained why he wouldn’t read Terry Pratchett: ‘If I’m going to make the effort to read a book, it needs to be about something important.’ He made sense, but I’ve never felt that way myself, not in the slightest – until I picked up a detective story at the start of this month and couldn’t see the point. After books on climate change, Arab-Israeli politics, the nature of history, etcetera, I wanted something that was either very meaty or no effort at all.
I found this Lily Brett book on my friend Judy’s shelves – a collection of short pieces, each one exactly three pages long, and staying resolutely at the level of observation and wry, reflexive commentary. (Unsurprisingly, mentioned nowhere in the book itself but prominent in its description on Lily Brett’s web site, the 52 pieces were commissioned as weekly columns for a newspaper, Die Zeit – a provenance which also explains the frequent German references.) Perfect, elegantly insubstantial bedtime reading, which morphed into perfect read-aloud in the car on the drive from Melbourne to Sydney when my reading of Shlomo Ben-Ami’s syntactically challenging sentences threatened to send driver my to sleep by the time we’d reached 1967 (roughly a third of the way through). We arrived home safely and in buoyant spirits ten minutes after the end of Lily’s last piece.
Once home, I didn’t immediately pick up Scars of War as a solitary read. I took a break, and knocked over Simon Leys’ book on the Batavia in a couple of days. He starts out saying he had planned to write on the subject for a long time, but given up when he read Mike Dash’s Batavia’s Graveyard, a book he recommends. I don’t think I’m up to the long book, and might not have read this one had I not received it as a freebie when I re-subscribed to the excellent The Monthly. But it’s a fascinating subject: a hideous reign of terror on a coral atoll off the coast of New Holland in the mid 17th century. I was impressed to find that the murderous teenage boy who was part of the events comes across as just as horrifying in this brief account as he does in Gary Crew’s young-adult novel, Strange Objects. The impression created by the novel that it is based in something real is borne out by this book. Simon Leys’ Batavia isn’t really book-length, and the volume is filled out with another essay, this time an account of the author’s tuna-fishing trip on a sailing boat in 1958.
After that bracing dip into two very different seas, I was about to return to the dryness of war and peace in Israel, when Heat 12 arrived in the post. It turned out to be right on theme – I’ve written a separate post.
Then I got back to Shlomo Ben-Ami‘s book. The author is a self-described Zionist of the Left, a one-time member of the Knesset and chief negotiator in Israeli–Palestinian negotiations, an activist for peace, and clearly a passionate historian. The book is a superb history of the diplomatic, political and military tactics and strategies, coups and blunders in the Middle East. Its emphasis is on the negotiations, ‘the peace process’; wars and violence feature only as they impact on the politics. The Munich Olympics, for instance, don’t rate a mention, and one searches in vain for a detailed account of any of the many violent episodes. As a know-next-to-nothing reader, I would have loved an easy-reference timeline up the back, and perhaps a glossary giving key dates, events and outcomes for each salient episode. In the absence of such kindnesses, I felt my ignorance acutely at times, but if that minor discomfort was the price of admission, the show was well worth it.
There are wonderfully sharp portraits of the main players, David Ben-Gurion, Golda Meir, Moshe Dayan, Yitzak Rabin, Yasser Arafat – not the kind that seizes on colourful details but rather evokes the characters as complex human beings and political operators: no mention at all of Dayan’s eye patch, but a brusque sketch of him as a man who inspired many people but was completely incapable of being close to anyone, a fierce Zionist who despised Judaism and had a kind of pagan belief system. The pages on Arafat are devastatingly brilliant (I wouldn’t have a clue if they’re accurate, but they explain a lot).
The early chapters delineate the complex interplay of imperial aggression and Zionist aspiration that led to the first Jewish settlements, are unflinching in their account of the dispossession and abandonment of the Palestinians, and anatomise the complexities of the politics in the region, including the roles and objectives of the superpowers. As the book comes closer to the present, and the author’s own direct observations and even interventions become part of the story, it might easily have lost its way in the detail of personalities and politicking; instead it becomes absolutely engrossing. Little bits of gossip enliven the narrative – Arafat had such difficulty renouncing terrorism that he also had difficulty pronouncing it: at the Camp David peace talks he three times promised to renounce ‘tourism’.
The book’s real strength is that this is an insider’s view, and the whole story is presented on a human scale – not that the narrative reduces the stakes and complexities to the level of personality; more that it explores the huge dimensions of the persons involved: the myths that sustain them and undermine them, their capacity for generosity and humiliation, their relationships as political leaders with their constituencies, their skills as negotiators …
No doubt this book has its detractors, and it may well have got it wrong on any number of counts. But reading it has put me within cooee of understanding why the Middle East goes on defying attempt after attempt at peace. It has also given me tantalising glimpses of Advanced Negotiation (it’s salted with gems like, ‘The weakness of your rival is a reason to reach an agreement with him, not the trigger to humiliate him further’) and of Leadership With or Without Megalomania. Although its subtitle, ‘The Israeli-Arab Tragedy’, is thoroughly justified by the amount of death and destruction contained in this narrative, by the hubris of some players (mostly Israeli) and the opportunities culpably missed (spectacularly, but not at all exclusively, by Yasser Arafat), it manages all the same to end on a note of cautious but plausible optimism:
The time has finally arrived to assume that the complete satisfaction of the parties’ respective dreams or presumed rights will only lead them both to perdition. Here it is incumbent upon each to devise realistic ways that would heal without opening new wounds, that would dignify their existence as free peoples without putting into jeopardy the selective security and the particular identity of the other. The moment has come for the creative energies of the parties to this most protracted of conflicts to be put, at long last, to work in the service of a durable peace.
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