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