Around 1409, Filipo Brunelleschi, the Renaissance architect, played a trick on a man named Manetto, who made the mistake of pissing Brunelleschi off. Essentially, he convinced Manetto he was not himself. He got a ton of people to address him as Matteo, including a police officer who arrested him for debt. And at the prison, the prisoners also addressed him as Matteo (Brunelleschi had a lot of criminal friends, apparently). Two men later came to pick him up and claimed he was their brother. That night, by which time Manetto really believed he had become Matteo, he was put to sleep with some kind of drink Brunelleschi made, taken back to his home, and everything went back to normal again (although someone named Matteo came to him and claimed to have been treated as if he were Manetto the day before).
On the one hand, this is an amusing story. But it does prove how slippery identity can be. If everyone you knew started treating you as someone else, how would you react? And if you are treated as someone other than yourself, what does it even mean or matter that you are still “you”?
This is a central question at the heart of Simon Leys’ The Death of Napoleon, a surprisingly unsettling novel where Napoleon, after making his escape from St. Helena and leaving behind a look-alike, runs into a problem rebuilding his army. And it’s a big problem – the look-alike has died. Everyone in the world believes that Napoleon Bonaparte is dead, except Napoleon Bonaparte. But can he convince them he is who he is?
I won’t spoil the novel for you by telling you what happens. But I will say that it’s an ingenious little book that deals with complex issues not only of identity, but identity as it relates to fame. For one of Napoleon’s biggest obstacles in convincing people he is Napoleon is that so many people want to be Napoleon. His name alone, to this day, is legendary. Dostoevsky’s Raskolnikov, the main character of Crime and Punishment, at one point declares he wanted to be a Napoleon. Napoleon’s name has become an indefinite noun that someone can become, no matter “who” they are.
The issues this novel raises about fame are particularly relevant today. Yes, celebrity culture is omnipresent, but people have idolized others for centuries. What is different now is that there is an unprecedented amount of media coverage, a large portion of which is often fake. I wonder sometimes, passing by a tabloid that claims someone is dying or secreting a spy what that someone must think. And if people can’t tell (or don’t care) what is true or false about the narrative of a famous person’s life, does what the famous person him or herself knows matter anymore?
This is a great novel that won’t take you long to read, but will stay with you a long, long time.
So go read it. Now.
NOTE: Simon Leys is the pen name of Pierre Ryckmans.