The Death of Napoleon

by Simon Leys

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The Death of Napoleon

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 451

Simon Leys is the pseudonym of sinologist and art historian Pierre Ryckmans. The novel was originally published in French as LA MORT DE NAPOLEON (1986). The translation was exquisitely done by Patricia Clancy and the author. In Leys’ touching tale, Napoleon does not serve out the remaining years of his life on the island of St. Helena. Through the efforts of a Bonapartist group, a double assumes the place of the real Napoleon on St. Helena, allowing Napoleon to escape. His mysterious supporters give him the name of Eugene Lenormand and put him on a ship that is bound for Bordeaux. According to the secret plot, Napoleon is to meet at Bordeaux with those who wish that he return to power, but the ship’s course is altered and it heads for Antwerp, therefore destroying all hope of the plot succeeding. Napoleon is now left to fend for himself, since there will be no one in Antwerp to give him further instructions.

Leys presents the reader with a Napoleon who is not well and without money. The question becomes: Will this military genius be able to survive in a world where he is not the Napoleon who was an emperor but merely an aging man? Suspense builds as the man known as Eugene Lenormand travels across Belgium, even taking a guided tour of the battlefield of Waterloo. The amputee guide speaks of troop movements that seem incorrect, leading one to believe that the guide most likely did not take part in the battle. Napoleon finally arrives in Paris after some effort and searches for a supporter whose name he had been given. The supporter has died, but Napoleon meets a kind widow who offers him lodging. He dreams of returning to power and organizing his loyal supporters, but news reaches Paris that the exiled Napoleon has died on St. Helena. Now what is the real emperor to do? How can he convince grieving supporters that Napoleon is really not dead? He is also confronted with the fact that there are many lunatics still claiming to be Napoleon. He visits an insane asylum and comes face-to-face with a number of these lunatics, some of whom seem more like Napoleon than he. In a newfound burst of creative energy, he sets a plan in motion to save the widow’s melon business. The real Napoleon has found an avenue for his strategic genius. The widow falls in love with her Eugene, but even on his deathbed as she holds his hand, he still responds only to the name by which the world knew him. Leys has written a powerful and compassionate tale that concerns itself with how elusive a true identity ultimately can be.

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