The frightened, stout man who is brought to the isle of Elba by a British ship in May 1814 looks like one of the many merchants who land at Portoferraio on business. In fact he is Napoleon Bonaparte, Emperor of France. The little island inhabited by fishermen, peasants and miners is all that is left of his realm that once extended from Cadiz to Moscow.
The Elbans greet him, suspicious but curious to see “what effect misfortune can have on you “. Among them is Martino Acquabona, a man of letters who refuses to resign himself to man’s inhumanity, and who for years has been trying to decipher the mystery of this Hero, or Ogre, who has thrown the history of Europe into turmoil: “…I had decided to study him as one might study the symptoms of syphilis, snake poison, or the nature of the Devil.”
Martino is appointed librarian by the Emperor, and becomes a witness, and interpreter, not only of this strange three-hundred-day interlude, but of the entire course of Napoleon’s career; and he tries to divert the future course of hat career by a dramatic gesture.
In a succession of discoveries and surprises, love-affairs and jealousies, doubts and resentments,the librarian and the Emperor engage in a dialogue on two ways of life and two conceptions of possible happiness: changing the world through heroic action, or attempting to give it a meaning through writing.
The novel, which is meticulously documented and narrated with great panache, gives us a lively portrait of the Emperor, his men, and their entire age, and probes the eternal questions of time, war, death, love, and man’s ability to “read” evil and combat it, both inside and outside himself.
Opinions on N
Ernesto Ferrero has painstakingly sifted the historical sources on the three hundred days that Napoleon spent on Elba and has made Manzonian use of the resulting material, demonstrating once again what an elegant, excellent novelist he is.
Ferrero exploits his preliminary research to masterly effect, bringing the story to life with a style honed by his work as translator and lexicographer. He catches the splendour of the uniforms, the beauty of the landscape, the warmth of the characters’ emotions and the detachment of the moral maxim… His novel is inspired by a broad perspective on people and history, and by a sad, ironically disillusioned meditation on the arena of human destiny.
The central character, Martino Acquabona (in other words, Ferrero himself), achieves his best results by a concision that crystallizes situations, feelings and thoughts. Martino-Ferrero competes with the Emperor, with whom he shares that taste for the aphorism which made Montaigne and Chamfort great… While Ferrero’s precise historical and social construction imparts life and colour to a crucial episode in Napoleon’s career, his epigrammatic turn of phrase captures the subtlest nuances of the period and the intricate workings of the minds of the various characters – all extraordinary people in one way or another – who command the stage.ell’animo dei personaggi, tutti in vario modo straordinari, che stanno sulla scena.
N. is not just a meditation on Napoleon as seen by an inferior; it is a a study of the feelings that the victor of Austerlitz arouses in the consciousness of the people who are constantly questioning him… In Barbablù (1998), his study of the life of Gilles de Rais, the Hannibal Lecter of fifteenth-century France, Ernesto Ferrero plumbed the darkest depths of human nature. In N. he has written a fascinating commentary on one of the most brilliant interludes in military history, the period between Borodino and Waterloo.
A blend of elegant autobiographical apologue and existential reflection, N. confirms Ferrero’s outstanding gifts as a novelist and his predilection for a bitter-sweet prose formed in the school of Calvino.
Ferrero has succeeded in reconstructing the little-known Elban interlude with the thoroughness of a journalist and the colour of a novelist who knows how to hold the reader’s attention through the charm of tiny details.
A diary as a constant questioning of the self… A form which allows Ferrero to wander back and forth across the boundaries between narrative, reflection and analysis, while always keeping the right balance between these different elements. This gives the book a tone of diffuse, amiable, restrained but profound melancholy, with occasional touches of humour and irony.
…A spare, fast-moving, narrative that can evoke landscapes, faces and atmospheres with a few strokes of the pen.