March to iden­tity

Napoleon’s Dou­ble By An­toni Jach Gi­ra­mondo, 314pp, $ 29.95

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Kathy Hunt

BORN in 1688, Alexan­der Pope never grew higher than 137cm, as a re­sult of ill­ness. In his Life of Pope , Samuel John­son says that to be seen at a din­ing ta­ble, let alone heard, ‘‘ it was nec­es­sary to raise his seat’’. Per­haps cush­ions or books were em­ployed here, a com­bi­na­tion of ta­pes­try and Tac­i­tus.

In 1728 the first edi­tion of The Dun­ciad ap­peared, Pope’s satire on dull­ness that meant to, and did, of­fend most of Eng­land’s writ­ers and all of its hacks. Bits of hell broke loose, and as a pre­cau­tion Pope never left the house with­out his great dane and a loaded pis­tol in both pock­ets.

We shall re­turn to Pope and the good old days, but first we must ex­am­ine a con­tem­po­rary ‘‘ work of ideas’’, An­toni Jach’s wak­ing dream of seven French ‘‘ sons of the En­light­en­ment’’ and their jour­neys to Egypt and New Hol­land.

Napoleon’s Dou­ble be­gan life as a short story called March­ing with Napoleon that was pub­lished in the lit­er­ary jour­nal Heat . Its premise was thought by some to be worth nov­el­is­ing, and voila.

Jach’s book is writ­ten in the dreary present tense, still more pop­u­lar with pub­lish­ers than read­ers. De­spite this, his style is easy on the eye and at first the nar­ra­tive pro­ceeds smoothly, pro­pelled by the ar­rival in Egypt of ‘‘ our band of seven’’, Jean- Yves, Jean- An­toine the nar­ra­tor, Jean- Claude, Jean- Baptiste, Jean- Marie and the twins Jean- Juste and Jean- Noel. This is as close to cut­ting the mus­tard as the group, all from a vil­lage near Di­jon, will get.

In Napoleon’s war against the Mamelukes, the con­scripts are as­signed as gun­ners and in the bat­tle of Shubra Khit Jean- Yves is ac­ci­den­tally cred­ited with blow­ing up an en­emy ship. This brings him to the at­ten­tion of a com­mand­ing of­fi­cer who hap­pens to no­tice his re­sem­blance to the 28- year- old Napoleon. Along with Cae­sar and At­tila the Hun, Bon­a­parte used dou­bles, al­though we get the im­pres­sion his ego could hardly bear it. But with sev­eral Napoleons seen on one day at He­liopo­lis, Saqqara, Giza and Cairo, for ex­am­ple, the gen­eral pop­u­lace be­came con­vinced of his god­like om­nipres­ence. This as­pect of the tac­tic must have ap­pealed to the great man who, Jach for­gets to say, even­tu­ally left his troops for dead in Egypt.

In Cairo, where our hun­gry sol­diers risk im­pris­on­ment for steal­ing dates, the revered but ined­i­ble teach­ings of Rousseau, Voltaire, Mar­cus Aure­lius and Plato must also com­pete with the charms of ‘‘ fair boun­ti­ful maid­ens’’ poached in camels’ milk and basted with per­fumed oils. Atyp­i­cally French, our sa­vants choose En­light­en­ment ideals over sex in the seraglio and the story never re­cov­ers.

Hav­ing failed to get phys­i­cal, the meta­phys­i­cal fa­ble is last seen ‘‘ stum­bling around in the dark’’. Jach has lost his way and when the tale sails south the ef­fort is mir­rored in the text: ‘‘ There are long pe­ri­ods of bore­dom on the Geographe . . . You ei­ther give up or push for­ward — there is no other choice.’’

Al­most half­way through this forced march, Pope’s wit and Jach’s dull­ness meet. On Napoleon’s or­ders, four of the sur­viv­ing Jeans have sailed with Ni­co­las Baudin on an ex­pe­di­tion to ex­plore the west coast of New Hol­land. On board, a nat­u­ral­ist called Peron quotes a favourite say­ing ‘‘ which he de­rives from [ the French philoso­pher] Joseph Marie Degerando and oth­ers, that the proper study of mankind is man’’. For a book that pur­ports to be a song to phi­los­o­phy, this is a dis­turb­ing er­ror. In his 1734 Es­say on Man, it was Pope who wrote ‘‘ Know then thy­self, pre­sume not God to scan / The proper study of Mankind is Man.’’ Seventy years later in his Com­par­a­tive Study of Philo­soph­i­cal Sys­tems , Joseph Marie, baron Degerando, may well have quoted Pope but for Jach to have at­trib­uted the lines to him ‘‘ and oth­ers’’ is just plain sloppy.

Per­haps an­tic­i­pat­ing th­ese com­ments, JeanAn­toine brings his ‘‘ mis­shapen, er­ror- rid­den chron­i­cle’’ to an end in Rose- Hill, NSW, where, in a stun­ning irony, the set­tlers are in­ter­pret­ing Rousseau with un­ex­pected re­sults.

Yet here, when it’s all too late, Jach’s brief satire on the colo­nial mind hints at the sort of book Napoleon’s Dou­ble might have been.

Visit­ing two French vi­gnerons near Syd­ney, Jean- An­toine is told about the evolv­ing cul­ture and warned against pre­ten­sion of any kind. This in­cludes think­ing, read­ing a book, us­ing large words and hav­ing an opin­ion. ‘‘ Here,’’ JeanAn­toine is in­formed, the prin­ci­pal aim ‘‘ is for ev­ery­one to be or­di­nary.’’ A per­ceiver of pat­terns, Pope would have ap­proved. Kathy Hunt is a lit­er­ary critic based in rural Vic­to­ria.

Ex­act science: Napoleon used body dou­bles

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