Topic: February 2005
The first 35 pages of this book are speckled with all sorts of magical realist riffs, not something I really recognized the first time.
The idea of circuses and exaggeration. Larger-than-Lifeness.
Napoleon's exaggerated personality and appetite.
The extremities of life at camp, where "there is no heat, only degrees of cold."
The introduction of a curious and important character who could speak a "funny language none of us could understand," and yet "he understood everything" [italics added].
An underlying politics:
"We're white with red noses and blue fingers. The tricolour."and the suggestion that war's reality is not sensible in the way that soldiers or leaders might imagine it.
This differentiates Henri, our narrator in this first section, from other soldiers. While being a true patriot, he recognizes the moral dichotomies of war, that "nowadays people talk about the things [Napoleon] did as though they made sense."
We get the following neat little summation from Henri more than once in this book: "I'm telling you stories. Trust me."
The authentic magical realist tale often demands the finesse of an extraordinary narrator, someone who can see inside and outside the story. Someone who can be reliable, or if unreliable, still believable. We want the tall tale to work.
Henri is one such extraordinary narrator, of good Catholic stock and born to serve his soon-to-be monarch, while still being capable of acknowledging the horrific side effects of war and "liberation":
"Words like devastation, rape, slaughter, carnage, starvation are lock and key words to keep the pain at bay. Words about war that are easy on the eye."In other words, he sees what's really going on. He recognizes how people will manage reality so that it's palatable, even when it's at its most horrible.
When he admits he's telling stories, you have two options as the reader: question him (after all, "telling stories" is only a hair different than "telling lies") or trust him.
Henri asks you to trust him. And why not? He's moral, obedient. His character is life-affirming; he loves his mother, is true to God, he believes in angels. And he's There. As Napoleon's private cook, Henri's got an inside into the little general's personal life.
This is how we get to the real stories in history?the reliable narrator. In this case, Henri's revelation of the seeds of tyranny and violence that constitute the rise of Napoleon occurs without ever baldly accusing his beloved leader of immorality.
Henri's observations are sly, but telling. For instance, when Henri is first introduced to Bonaparte's storeroom, he discovers dozens of chickens, sans beaks and claws, held inside wooden cages and "staring through the slats with dumb identical eyes."
The presence of these particular chickens is meaningful to a farm boy like Henri, who has seen plenty of wringed necks and caged animals in his life to not be shocked by the sight. What he is startled by, however, is the silence of the birds.
"Not even a rustle. They could have been dead, should have been dead, but for the eyes."Henri is telling us something we need to know here. Author Jeanette Winterson is using Henri's point of view to structure the story's message in multiple ways.
1/ She's establishing the humanity of her main narrator to make him credible and sympathetic. Someone to trust? Absolutely.That's why they bother Henri, because they're no longer just livestock to him. Not in this context.
2/ She's also hinting at events to come. Caged chickens are tyranny enough, after all; to then remove their beaks and claws after they've already been sequestered says something about Napoleon that we now understand to be true: that he was cruel, vain, and a serious control freak.
3/ And finally, she's suggesting the chickens represent something. Are they blind? No, only voiceless, and without any way to defend themselves. What could that stand for, but the aftermath of Napoleon's reign on the innocent? These chickens are witnesses.
Henri is a truthteller, then. One who lives up to his commitment to his family, his church, his country. One who both loves and loathes his leader. What could be more human? More grounded in reality?