cover image The Black Room at Longwood: Napoleon's Exile on Saint Helena

The Black Room at Longwood: Napoleon's Exile on Saint Helena

Jean-Paul Kauffmann. Da Capo Press, $25 (304pp) ISBN 978-1-56858-128-6

A bestseller in France and winner of that country's Prix Femina, this stark meditation on Napoleon's confinement on the South Atlantic island of St. Helena is haunted by the fact that Kauffmann, too, has been a prisoner. In 1985, while he was working as a reporter for a French weekly, he was captured by Shiite Muslims in Beirut and imprisoned for three years. He never mentions it in the book, but this experience colors the entire text. Lured by the idea ""that the upheaval caused by a disaster or a tragedy leaves a mark, or at the very least a ripple in the air"" at its site, Kauffmann traveled to Napoleon's final home, Longwood, to reimagine the emperor's last five and a half years, which were spent in a draughty, damp house. With ""300 meter-high cliffs that fall sheer into the ocean"" and no port, St. Helena is so inescapable that, once he arrived, Napoleon was never actually imprisoned. Yet he spent much of his time in his bedroom, which measured only 17 square meters. In a series of eight diary-like sections, Kauffmann discusses Napoleon's career and the corrosive effects the boredom of captivity had on his health. Kauffmann has an eye for telling detail: he notices that St. Helena has been rubbed off of the globe in Longwood's sitting room. As he flits between imagining Napoleon's last days and describing Longwood as it is today (a strange, Conrad-like backwater held by the U.K., though the French own Longwood), his text remains, despite some truly beautiful writing, oddly static, imprisoned within the plush walls of its melancholy sentences. (July)