Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 8, 2020

Napoleon’s Beekeeper (2017), by José Luis de Juan, translated by Elizabeth Bryer

This curious novella was an interesting diversion: it transported me back to 1814 on the island of Elba — famous as the island where Napoleon was exiled at the end of the Napoleonic Wars by the Treaty of Fontainebleau because the island was in French hands at the time. (Elba did not become part of the newly unified Italy until 1860.)

De Juan’s novella reminded me immediately of Thomas Keneally’s Napoleon’s Last Island, which I thought could have been a better book entirely if Keneally had focused his attention on the men guarding the Emperor on Elba instead of on Napoleon’s 14-year-old neighbour. (Hark at me, *chuckle* telling one of Australia’s most successful novelists what he should write about! You can read my review here if you want to know why I had the temerity to say so.)

But more pertinently, once I started reading it, Napoleon’s Beekeeper reminded me of another short but significant work: Ransom by David Malouf, which I reviewed here. In Ransom, Malouf brings together King Priam, a very powerful man, with Somax, a peasant carter, with whom the king would normally have no contact if not for his poignant quest to reclaim the body of his son, killed in the Trojan Wars.  And so it is in De Juan’s novella: a man who seems, superficially, to be an ordinary man, a simple beekeeper on the island of Elba, is brought into contact with the man who had been the most powerful in Europe, the Emperor Napoleon, who aspired to be ruler of the world.  Now brought low by his own ambition and the coalition of powers who defeated him, Napoleon as captive rules only this small island.  What these men share is a preoccupation with bees…

Now there are lots of websites about Napoleon and his interest in bees, but the most concise is at the NGV (which some years ago ran a splendid exhibition of artworks about Napoleon).  But the thing about bees is this: much as I love the bees that fertilise my vegetable patch, the fact is that they operate on a ruthless, exploitative system, and an apiarist has to be ok with that.  (Substitute any livestock animal you like for the bee, and contemplate what kind of farmer would be ok with the animals behaving in a similar way, eh?*)  For all the gumpf about the symbolism of bees for Napoleon…

Due to its industrious habits the bee has come to symbolise hard work, diligence, industriousness and orderliness. Because it is also the producer of honey, the bee also symbolises sweetness and benevolence.  (‘Napoleon and the Bee, NGV, viewed 8/4/20)

… the truth is that Napoleon shared bees’ ruthlessness and exploitation of underlings.  He was the Emperor whose ambitions caused 65000 casualties at the Battle of Waterloo alone, 17000 of whom were British.  Wikipedia suggests that military casualties in Europe totalled 2.5million and then there were a further million civilian casualties.  Of course he admired bees!

Napoleon on the field of Eylau (1807) by Antoine-Jean Gros

The humble apiarist is an interesting fellow: it just so happens that he is an auto-didact.  Andrea Pasolini had the good fortune to be taught classical languages and French by Father Anselmo:

Just like our Emperor, the priest was in exile on Elba, as his zeal for thinking and acting had led to his removal from the Siena diocese.  With Father Anselmo, Pasolini would get a taste for the classics of Rome and Athens.  He read Apuleius, Terence and Aristotle.  He was dazzled by Voltaire and Diderot; he capitulated to the nimble discourse of Montaigne and the liberating ideas of Rousseau; he was moved by the cautious rapture of Pascal.  His readings were voracious, his enthusiasm febrile. (p.10)

(You can see the beauty of Elizabeth Bryer’s translation in that passage. It’s wonderful.)

Pasolini is not interested in the bee business that he inherited from his father. He marries, and he has a mistress in the city where his business takes him and where a bookseller provisions him with his true sustenance. He keeps the farm running but harvests honey with weary and sceptical dedication, mindful of vital changes but without any entrepreneurial flair. He has a hidden library where he disappears to read his books…

Some might say his obsession with hiding is a little extravagant.  If his wife comes across him reading with his nose pressed to a candle in the dead of night, he says he is wakeful and has opened the Psalms at random to bring on sleep.  (p.14)

No wonder his wife complains of having to drag the words out of him.  

The arrival of Napoleon on the island disrupts his equable existence.  He is discombobulated by Napoleon’s command that he make a visit to Pasolini’s farm.  But more than that, Father Anselmo is a supporter, and he wants Pasolini to assist in a conspiracy to restore Napoleon to the throne.

The last scene, where Napoleon observes, in one of the hives, the panic of its inhabitants like inhabitants of a besieged citadel about to fall to an attack, is just brilliant.

What makes them work to the death?  Why don’t they ever rest?  Who gives them their orders?  (p.11)

Who indeed?!

A cunning conclusion!!

(From Giramondo’s website) José Luis de Juan was born on Mallorca, in Spain’s Balearic Islands. He is the author of eight novels, as well as stories, non-fiction and poetry, for which he has received literary awards in Spain and abroad.  He writes for journals such as El País and Revista de Libros, and has been a member of the Jury for the IMPAC International Award.  Napoleon’s Beekeeper was the winner of the prestigious ‘Premio Novela Breve Juan March Cencillo’.

* Yes, I know, some of the husbandry employed by farmers is pretty grotesque as well.  Let’s not go there, ok?

Image credit: By Antoine-Jean Gros – 6gEsq9j5bB2ryQ at Google Cultural Institute maximum zoom level, Public Domain,

Author: by José Luis de Juan
Title: Napoleon’s Beekeeper 
Translated from the Spanish by Elizabeth Bryer
Designed by Harry Williamson and Jenny Grigg
Cover image: Three Bees 2012, watercolour by Ele Grafton/Bridgeman Images (Yes, I know, there are only two bees, you can see the original image here, so that you can see how it’s been tweaked)
Publisher: Giramondo Publishing, 2020, first published as El apicultor de Bonaparte (2017)
ISBN: 9781925818239, pbk., 111 pages
Review copy courtesy of Giramondo Publishing

Available direct from Giramondo Publishing, from Fishpond Napoleon’s Beekeeper and remember to support your local bricks-and-mortar bookshop if it is still trading!



  1. It sounds just fascinating. Thank you for discussing it, Lisa. Your reviews are truly sources of light in a weird and wonky world


    • A weird and wonky world is right!
      My wish for all my friends is that there are some rays of sunshine in the present situation. My life is being enriched by my community: almost every house in the surrounding streets has teddy bears for the children ‘going on a bear hunt’. People are sharing books, produce, and wool and a gentleman neighbour who I’ve never met is making me a ‘little library’ so that I can share the books I’ve finished with, without them getting wet. We are having Friday Night drinks on our nature strips enjoying conversations with neighbours on the other side of the road, and somebody is organising a ‘dawn service’ for Anzac Day. I myself am ‘penfriend’ to four children in the street, receiving their letters with delight each time one arrives in my letterbox.
      If this is being replicated in different ways across Australia, we are seeing the emergence of a kinder society.


  2. I didn’t know that Napoleon was interested in bees, but your explanation makes sense. The Spanish title ‘apicultor’ is so much more elegant than ‘beekeeper’. I notice in news stories from Europe about the virus and its effects that ‘respirateur’ or the Spanish ‘respirador’ are more logical than the English ‘ventilator’ (for the machine that aids people in hospital needing help with breathing). It aids respiration, not ventilation! I hadn’t heard of this writer, so thanks for the review.


    • I hadn’t heard of him either until Giramondo sent me the book. He’s famous in Spain, apparently, but as always we rely on enterprising publishers to bring us English translations.
      Though… am I right in thinking that you might be developing some fluency in Spanish because you visit it so often?


    • QC Fiction based in Quebec is doing similar excellent work in publishing innovative French-language works in English translation. As for the Spanish: I studied it at A Level (with French and English), and worked there for a year – both long ago, so it’s fairly rusty. But yes, it’s freshening up with the visits to Catalunya to visit family. Grandsons are more comfortable with Spanish; it’s their mum’s first language, and hence literally their mother tongue!


      • It’s always the small indie publishers who do the most interesting things!
        It’s amazing how language ‘comes back’ when you need it. When we made our 2012 trip to Russia, I insisted that we visit Paris ‘on the way home’ because I thought I would want a nice meal after two weeks in Russia. But I’d concentrated on learning Russian for 6 months beforehand and hadn’t done anything to refresh my French because we were only going to be there for 24 hours. Yet, in the baggage hall, when I missed part of an announcement about making an exit through Gate A or Gate B, my brain didn’t miss a beat: I was able to turn to the gentleman next to me, ask my question in French, and understand his answer.
        How nice that your grandsons live somewhere so congenial:) Imagine if you had to go and visit them somewhere with less enticing weather!


  3. I didn’t know either about this interest. Sounds fascinating, Lisa – and it’s a novella! Even better. I do love a good novella.


    • So do I… just long enough for some character development, which is what interests me more than anything else in fiction.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Sounds fascinating Lisa, despite the fact that I love bees and hate their methods at the same time (as well as hating human exploitation of them!)


    • There are some luscious descriptions of different types of honey….

      Liked by 1 person

  5. If we can’t point out the mistakes and weaknesses in books, what can we do? It would take all the pleasure out of blogging. And Elba. I love maps but I realise now I’ve never checked out where it is.


    • I didn’t either… In fact #TrueConfessions, when I reviewed the Keneally book, I’d tagged the setting as a British Overseas Territory because in his book there are British soldiers on the island and #MyMistake I hadn’t absorbed the fact that Napoleon was actually on what was then French territory which is became part of unified Italy some forty years later.


  6. This sounds very interesting. I’m reminded of another novella (with a Napoleon and his interest in ‘nature’) – Zarafa, the story of the first giraffe in Europe. Can’t remember much detail but I do recall thinking how extraordinary it would have been to see a giraffe for the first time (and being walked through your town!).


    • Ah yes, I read that too, the version by Michael Allin, I read it when I was briefly in a CAE bookgroup.
      You’re right: these days we can see all kinds of wildlife in docos, but in those days it would have been a real novelty.

      Liked by 1 person

  7. […] will never be Napoleon’s Beekeeper, by José Luis de Juan, translated by Elizabeth Bryer (I’m allergic to […]


  8. […] José Luis de Juan, Napoleon’s Beekeeper [El apicultor de Bonaparte], Sydney: Giramondo, 2020, see my review […]


  9. […] of Spanish whose work includes Napoleon’s Beekeeper, by José Luis de Juan, (Giramondo 2020, see my review.) Her other translations include Claudia Salazar Jiménez’s Blood of the Dawn (Deep Vellum, […]


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