Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 29, 2008

Napoleon’s Double (2007), by Antoni Jach


What an interesting book!  It’s the very clever and utterly absorbing story of seven rogue-adventurers, told in a picaresque way somewhat reminiscent of Candide (which I read a long, long time ago when I was at university).  Making no apology for its scholarly allusions, it’s a sort of philosophical travel novel which begins at the turn of the 18th century during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt, and ends in the early days of Sydney-Town in Australia.

Beware: spoilers below.

The seven Jeans are conscripts in Napoleon’s army, and children of the Enlightenment.  The narrator, Jean-Antoine, tells of their  fascination with Egypt and their hero-worship of Napoleon, but by the end of the book disillusionment has set in.  The other Jeans are dead, (except possibly for Jean-Yves, Napoleon’s double) and Jean-Antoine must settle down to live out his old age as a wiser man.

Each Jean represents a philosophical type, and takes on a different role, intellectual, moral, artistic or religious.  Jean-Juste and Jean-Noel, the fighting twins, leave the story early on, an indication that Jach sees no future in self-destructive aggressive behaviour.  Jean Marie is the lover, who takes his broken heart off into the desert to die.  It’s interesting that these seven are all entirely cerebral: there is mild attraction and a futile passion, but there are no sexual encounters in the book.  The nearest things to lasciviousness are the fantasies the men have about ‘free love’ on the island of Tahiti.

Jean-Baptiste (based on the historical Jean Baptiste Leschenault de la Tour) is the theist and would-be doctor.  He is enamoured of Pascal and devotes his life to the service of others.  On the voyage to New Holland he makes himself ill tending the sick and eventually dies in Sydney-Town.  Jean-Claude is the compulsive-perfectionist artist – he draws the same subjects again and again, but destroys all his work because it’s never good enough.

I think the point of this is to reinforce Jach’s point about the Janus-like inability of artists of any kind to capture the present.  (Janus can look to the past and the future but never see the present).  On p308 Jean Antoine reflects that the god of doubleness cannot capture the present and neither can we, and he also muses on the elusiveness of memory – he takes notes to help him remember what he wants to put into his book but is still never sure of the truth of events anyway.  (One example of this is that Jean-Antoine has doubts about the truth of Jean-Yves’s accounts of his adventures as Napoleon’s double because of his constant self-aggrandisement and self-deception. He realises early on that not even Yves knows what is really true about his adventures. )

Jean-Yves is the dreamer and the leader, the supremely confident one whose grandiose ideas and ambitions are matched only by his intemperance.   By chance he is in charge of a cannon that fires at random to save the life of the commander in battle, and he is rewarded by the Powers-That-Be when he is recognised as suitable to be one of Napoleon’s doubles.  This dubious honour means that he is to be one of many doubles used as decoys in public appearances – not only to protect Napoleon from assassins but also to enhance his mythic prestige by suggesting that he can be ‘seen’ everywhere.   So Jean-Yves is trained in Napoleon’s mannerisms, but learns them too well – for when he finally meets Napoleon the great man is offended by Yves’ arrogance and his exaggerated mannerisms are too accurate and therefore objectionable.  The remaining brothers-in-arms who have thus far survived events in Egypt are therefore an embarrassment and a risk to Napoleon’s prestige, so they are despatched on a perilous journey to New Holland, presumably never to return.  Alas for Jean-Yves, he is destined never to achieve his dream of becoming another Napoleon.

Prior to this disastrous meeting with their hero, however, the Jeans enjoy a dreamlike existence in Cairo.  Although simple villagers, they seem educated men, fond of quoting French philosophers and using their ideas as a guide to life (except when the roll of the dice is a preferable way to decide between alternatives!) They are sent to map the chaotic streets of Cairo, a task at which they fail miserably, partly because they don’t have the skills, and partly because they are distracted by their exotic surroundings which include a seraglio.  They are also detained by a depressed prince who demands that they heal him.  They try with philosophy but succeed with pseudo-science: hocus-pocus, mesmerism, snake-charming and magnets.   baudin

In Part II of the story, the remaining Jeans set sail for New Holland with Baudin’s expedition, charged with the task of enhancing the glory of France by mapping the unknown southern coastline.  They are too late for this, thanks to Matthew Flinders 1802 circumnavigation of Australia, so they collect botanical and zoological specimens with which to impress the Empress Josephine instead.

The irrepressible Jean-Yves still harbours his dreams, and he maroons himself on King Island so that he can start a French colony and be a new Napoleon, another double.  His rule is doomed, however, because his ‘subjects’  – eight stowaways who are to be left behind with him on the island – stow away again and he is left alone.  This presumed lonely death achieves the goal of the French authorities who had despatched the brothers-in-arms to the ends of the earth so that no indiscreet revelations might be made about Napoleon.

Jach’s great survivor, Antoine, decides to leave the expedition to become a gardener, growing grapevines in the new Australian colony.  This is no idealised Paradise, however, though Antoine would like it to be…He is rudely brought down to earth by one of the ship’s company, Peron (another character based on an historical figure, Francois Peron, the explorer and naturalist).  Peron tells him that the new egalitarian society has no place for intellectuals with pretensions.  Whereas the Seven found entertainment in pursuing ideas and philosophies, such behaviour in Australia is regarded as showing off that one knows more than one’s neighbour, and it’s judged harshly.  It is a land of opportunity, but only the opportunity to be like one’s neighbour.

The only successful relationship is Jean-Antoine’s marriage to Frances Pound.  (Here the doubling seemsgeographe silly: so what if her name is the ‘same’ as his middle name Francois?  Is it supposed to be an allusion to St Frances of Assisi, when Jean-Antoine (Frances) tended the captured specimens aboard the Geographe , kidding himself that feeding herbivorous kangaroos honey-sweetened rice would enable them to survive the long journey back to France?  It seems a bit forced to me.)  Anyway, Antoine had a childhood sweetheart back in France, but is relieved to learn that she has married some older rival in order to have security.  This leaves Antoine free to marry his common-law wife in Sydney.  Is it love of her that makes him renounce a life of adventure and the possibilities of fame as a great naturalist back in France?  Is it that he knows the expedition will be judged a failure because Flinders succeeded first?  Or is it that the lure of adventure has paled as all his companions died?   Jach begins with seven rogues, but ends with a wiser man.  Their adventures expose the irony of the Enlightenment – which purported to bring ‘civilisation’ to places which already had one, both in Egypt and in Australia.

It’s a very fine book, and I liked the historic engravings too!

Author: Antoni Jach
Title: Napoleon’s Double
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing
Source: Personal copy, purchased at Readings


  1. […] in this slim novel, but the adventure never falters.  It reminded me a little bit of the splendid Napoleon’s Double in the way that the characters debate issues such as risk, safety and adventure (p130); the right […]


  2. […] that is not why I am cross.  To each his own, and Antoni Jach is an erudite man.  He wrote Napoleon’s Double, a very fine book, which we at ANZLL read and enjoyed last year.  Jach would know more about […]


  3. […] was also a thrill to meet Antoni Jach who wrote Napoleon’s Double, a novel which I really, really liked so #Scoop! I am pleased to be able to tell you that there is […]


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