The 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo is coming up on June 18. If you are a history buff, and you want to understand this momentous occasion a little better, there are plenty of books to choose from. If you are a fiction buff, there is only one: The Death of Napoleon by Simon Leys, first published in French in 1986 and newly reissued by NYRB Classics in a translation by Patricia Cleary.
It’s not hard to imagine that Emperor Napoleon, with his network of military loyalists, could have smuggled himself out of exile on the island of St. Helena by sneaking in a body double to take his place. And, further, it’s not hard to imagine his plan going terribly wrong in one way or another, leaving an elderly Napoleon stranded on the European mainland under a false identity, roaming the new world that his conquests have created, trying desperately to get himself back in the game. That’s the plot of The Death of Napoleon, anyway.
This is not a myopic work of hagiography by an ordinary Francophile. Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans, a Belgian writer who lived in Australia. He is perhaps best known for his scholarship on China. Leys writes this story like a beloved fable, with the lush precision of someone who has told the tale many times before.
When Napoleon reaches Waterloo and tours the battlefield—which is now a tourist attraction—in the guise of a commoner, he finds that everyone remembers the battle their own way, and nobody’s version agrees with his. It’s a fascinating crisis: the horror of seeing your life from outside, as others see it, and losing a grip on your own narrative. Rattled, Napoleon decides he must do something that will eclipse his own reputation. Which raises an interesting question: If you’re Napoleon, can you have a Napoleon complex? Eventually he makes his way to Paris and (spoiler alert) applies his brilliant strategic mind to the humble trade of selling watermelons.
Not even Napoleon could conquer his own legend. You might say it’s his Waterloo.
– Brian Hurley