Books: The emperor of emptiness

The Dark Room at Longwood by Jean-Paul Kauffmann, trans. Patricia Clancy Harvill, pounds 12, 250pp; Andrea Stuart is enraptured by a Beirut hostage's tale of Napoleon's final years on the island of abandoned hopes the end of a Japanese dream
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"MY FAME lacked only one thing - misfortune. I have worn the Imperial crown of France, Italy's crown of Iron; and now England has given me one that is greater and more glorious still - that worn by the Saviour of the world - a crown of thorns." So declared Napoleon Bonaparte after the defeat of Waterloo, on the eve of his exile to the island of St Helena. He had expected to end his days in a manor house, leading the life of a country gentleman. Instead he was consigned to live out the rest of his days at Longwood House, "a sort of Wuthering Heights in the tropics".

Here in Longwood - his prison without walls, dubbed the "cowshed" - Napoleon and his disciples set about consolidating the Napoleonic legend via his numerous dictated memoirs. But the past slowly began to overwhelm him and this "master of upheaval", who once "carried the world on his shoulders", was slowly crushed under the weight of memory and loss. In The Dark Room At Longwood, Jean-Paul Kauffmann explores Napoleon's inexorable decline.

Some of the "thorns" in Napoleon's crown were provided by the island itself. The climate - hot, damp, with ferocious winds - eroded buildings, promoted decay and stifled the spirit. Its geographical position in the middle of the South Atlantic created an almost total sense of isolation, like a giant Alcatraz with nowhere to run and no way to leave. On the island today, prisoners are free to play football and bathe in the sea, so convinced are the authorities of the impossibility of escape. To Kauffmann, the island stinks with "the stagnant odour of oblivion". Time here is its own form of torture, gnawing at the "still surface of things, wearing away rock, vegetation and the human will".

Kauffmann concludes that the key to Napoleon's last days lies in Longwood itself. In search of revelations, even ghosts, the author prowls through the house, conjuring up the great man before our very eyes. We see him dictating his obsessive litanies of the past, swerving from grandiosity to despair. We watch him start and abandon random projects, all of them rendered meaningless by the impossibility of the future. Above all, we watch him try to cope with the unrelenting boredom: peeping through holes he has cut in the shutters to see those approaching the house, teasing his companions with fabricated tales of their spouses infidelities - desperate stratagems created to fill the cavernous gulf of time.

Kauffmann, who has won six French literary prizes for The Dark Room at Longwood, has a prose style that is limpid, poetic and sensual. He weaves a spell that floats through time and captures the reader in a web of bitterness, loss and death. "I hear the voice forever weeping. Prisoners are the only ones who can hear the lament. It's the pain of endlessly going over everything again and again that rises in whispers from small barred windows and cries behind the iron doors of prison cells... But this poor aria cannot ever express the feeling of abandonment, the indifference of the world outside and the desolation of endless days."

What separates this book from others, such as Julia Blackburn's wonderful The Emperor's Last Island, is Kauffmann's own experience as a Beirut hostage in the 1980s. His insights on captivity add an entirely new dimension to the subject. He achieves this without dwelling on the minutiae of his own tribulations. In fact there is only one, very oblique, reference to his own imprisonment.

In an age of "Reader he left me" memoirs, this is more than refreshing; it is positively inspiring. By using his own tragedy to add genuine emotional depth to his writing, Kauffmann simultaneously exemplifies how personal experience can generate great art and reveals these sordid literary stripteases for what they are: accounts that show us everything and tell us nothing.

In contrast, Kauffmann confesses nothing and reveals everything. Written between every line are the sufferings of his own captivity; his own struggle to come to terms with the loss of freedom, hope and time. So what is ostensibly another addition to the mountain of Napoleonic literature turns out to be both an intensely moving narrative and a sort of existential detective story, with the author playing the part of his favourite sleuth, Maigret. As Kauffmann returns again and again to the scene of the crime, interrogating witnesses and sifting through the clues of the dark room at Longwood, he answers the captive's perennial questions. Why am I here? How do I salvage the past in order to cope with the present? Sublime stuff.

Andrea Stuart is writing a life of the Empress Josephine for Macmillan