Jean-Paul Kauffmann, The Black Room at Longwood, Napoleon’s Exile at Saint Helena (French, 1997)

To be frank, I’d never have even opened this book if a dear friend hadn’t sent it directly onto my Kindle while demonstrating how to use e-books.

I’m no big fan of Napoleon. Actually, I don’t know much about Napoleon, having managed to skip every class on this particular period of European/French history. Napoleon was reduced to basics, insisting on the modernization of French state before disapproving the folly of wandering towards Europe’s Russian outposts.

The sentence “Napoleon was sent to exile at Saint Helena” made us laugh and not think twice.

You see, there’s a nursery rhyme that every French child knows: “Napoleon died at Saint Helena / His son Leon burst his big belly / He was found sitting on a whale / He was licking fish bones”. (“Hélène” and “baleine” rhyme in French, as do “bidon” and “poisson”.)

It’s only fairly recently that I tried to locate Saint Helena on a map, just out of curiosity. If you don’t have a clue (I won’t hold it against you) go to Google Maps and come back.

Surprising isn’t it?

It doesn’t take long to realize that it was the kind of place you can’t escape from. The place you don’t come back from. Napoleon only survived 5 years there, slowly won over by gloom and humidity.

Kauffmann has been kidnapped as a French journalist in Lebanon during the 1980s and had spent 3 years in captivity (I read a book about his return to freedom a few years ago). So he knows a thing or two about solitude and confinement. He also loves islands. He visited Saint Helena, travelling by the only boat that make its way from Cape Town to the island.

I could empathize with the pages where Kauffmann muses over our inability to really recapture the past, but I didn’t quite get in the right mood for that. The travelogue part felt more like a magazine account than an essay. I didn’t really care for Kauffmann’s visits and his other companions.

Even if I didn’t care for Napoleon, the parts I loved best eventually were the description of the former emperor’s lonely life with his closest courtiers. The atmosphere was quite claustrophobic and led to bickering, petty jealousy and endless poring over the past, trying to analyze what went wrong.  Those who had followed the fallen emperor to the island weren’t prisoners themselves, they had come out of loyalty, maybe out of hope that the emperor would find his way back to France and/or to a powerful position. They were all vying for his attention, noting his every word and move in order to publish memoirs later on, hoping to be rewarded on the emperor’s will.

Despite its weaknesses, it was well worth spending a few hours on this book to discover these less-known points of history and geography!

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