cover image The Death of Napoleon

The Death of Napoleon

Simon Leys. Farrar Straus Giroux, $15 (129pp) ISBN 978-0-374-13565-2

In Leys's deliciously sardonic short fable, Napoleon Bonaparte escapes from imprisonment on the isle of St. Helena, where an officer who impersonates him is executed. The exiled emperor becomes a cabin hand on a crayfish schooner, returns to the Continent under an alias, takes a tourist excursion to the battlefield of Waterloo and eventually makes his way to Paris, where loyal Bonapartists are mourning the death of their hero. While coolly plotting his return to power, the deposed ruler lapses into domestic joy and small-time prosperity as a melon merchant, and becomes the live-in companion of a simple, warmhearted widow whom he knows only as ``the Ostrich.'' On his deathbed, he fails a divine test, too enamored of his lost glory to care for basic human ties. Leys, the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, a sinologist ( Chinese Shadows ) and art historian, writes an elegant, precise prose that ironically evokes the Napoleonic age. His exquisite tale, a gem of a book, can be read as a parable on the folly of hero-worship, the perils of self-justifying notions of destiny and the vanity of all human striving. (Sept.)