Simon Leys: The Death Of Napoleon*

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In the afterword to The Death Of Napoleon Simon Leys tells us that the book was made into a film both sad and funny: sad, because Napoleon was interpreted to perfection by an actor (Ian Holm) whose performance made me dream of what could have been achieved had the producer and director bothered to read the book. (When I asked the producer why he changed my title [to The Emperor’s New Clothes] he replied: “Death does not sell.”) In a similar circumstance, another novelist once commented: “Film-makers select books the way dogs select lamp-posts: to piss against them.”

This is an absolutely enchanting little book, in which Leys imagines Napoleon having escaped from St Helena and under the name of Eugène Lenormand making his way back to France to take up where he left off. Eugène has a rough time of it, first of all as cabin-hand and general dogsbody on a Norwegian schooner, where he is the butt of many jokes about his resemblance to Napoleon, and then travelling on foot from Antwerp to France, getting arrested on the way for not paying his hotel bill, and finally as a partner in a struggling watermelon-selling business. His brilliance as a field-commander coming to the fore, he turns this business around overnight; the section where he outlines his strategy covering the time factor, the terrain factor and the human factor, is one of the high points of the book:

We shall therefore concentrate our strength exclusively in those regions that offer the least possibility of resistance with the best chance of gaining a prompt, significant advantage with the greatest economy of effort – i.e., the zones that present both a maximum concentration of population and a minimum supply level of fruit and vegetables….

 We will form a single column with all the handcarts and even the wheelbarrows at our disposal. Headquarters will be installed in a café in the central zone… Liaison between headquarters and the various carts engaged in action will also be carried out by the band of children. (77-8)

What a CEO Napoleon would have made! But his watermelon success is a mere detail to him; he remains driven by his sense of destiny.

Leys’ prose is consistently pleasurable to read, and there is some exhilarating writing:

the lower regions of the clouds were still sunk in darkness, where one could vaguely make out deep gorges, shadowy peaks, rows of cliffs and blue chasms, nocturnal snowfields and wide expanses of purple lava. The entire sky was caught in an uninterrupted surge of energy, frozen in motionless chaos. Above the smooth, translucent sea, everything was in a state of suspense, waiting for the sun. (14)

This is a sad, funny, profound flight of fancy that beautifully evokes the human and mythic qualities of these rare beings, a unique combination of romantic imagination and practical brilliance, who appear, it seems, from nowhere, and whose star fizzles out as inexplicably as it arose.

*First published in 1981 as La Mort De Napoléon. Simon Leys, whose real name is Pierre Ryckmans, translated his own book (with Patricia Clancy) in 1991. It won the UK Independent Foreign Fiction Award in 1992.

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