This is a short book but what it lacks in girth, the book makes up for in substance being rich in language and visual imagery. Having just read Sharpe’s Devil it was a surprise to encounter Napoleon again so soon.
“Lovers are not at their best when it matters. Mouths dry up, palms sweat, conversation flags, and all the time the heart is threatening to fly from the body once and for all. Lovers have been known to have heart attacks. Lovers drink too much from nervousness and cannot perform. They eat too little and faint during their fervently wished consummation. They do not stroke the favoured cat and their face-paint comes loose. This is not all. Whatever you have set store by, your dress, your dinner, your poetry, will go wrong”.
This is a novel in four unequal parts, the first is “The Emperor”, where we meet Henri in Boulogne, a part of Napoleon’s forces amassing with a plan to invade England. Henri is not a soldier but in the catering division preparing the chicken dishes that Napoleon relishes. In the second part “The Queen of Spades” we are taken to Venice “the city of disguises”, “This is the city of mazes. You may set off from the same place to the same place every day and never go by the same route.”,where web-footed Villanelle, the daughter of a boatman is working in a casino. The third and longest part is “The Zero Winter“, where Villanelle and Henri are caught up in Napoleon’s ill fated march on Moscow in the winter of 1812, the pair escape and manage to get back to Venice via numerous difficulties. The final part is “The Rock“, which refers to the lunatic asylum of San Servolo, an island in Venice’s lagoon where prisoners judged insane are incarcerated.
The book is titled “The Passion”, there may be some connection to The passion of the bible… John 15:13 “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.”There are many descriptions of passion in the book: “Man cannot live without passion. Religion is somewhere between fear and sex.”
The book is beautifully written and the description of the characters is quite poetic, this is a book that demands re-reading, something I almost never do.
“You play, you win, you play, you lose. You play.”