Allen & Unwin, $29.99 pb, 292 pp, 9781760529307
Fortune begins with Napoleon’s triumphant entry into Berlin on 27 October 1806. Does it matter whether the popular image of the emperor astride a magnificent white stallion is an embellishment? ‘Time sullies every truth,’ Lenny Bartulin tells us. History is as much a fiction as this tale of derring-do and dire misfortune heaped on innocent and wicked alike. Coincidence, improbable and highly amusing, propels the narrative in a series of fast-moving, often farcical vignettes that recall Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532), Voltaire’s Candide (1759), and Joseph Furphy’s classic Australian yarn Such Is Life (1903).
With a mixture of comic bawdiness and earnest philosophising, Bartulin successfully adapts the satirical novel to suit twenty-first-century expectations. He shuffles the overlapping lives of characters as if they are cards in a deck of infinite possibility and combination, thus exposing both their selfless acts and darkest secrets. From Europe to the Dutch colony of Suriname and the penal colonies of New South Wales and Van Diemen’s Land, an otherwise incident-driven narrative is lent pathos by Bartulin’s inventive and insightful attribution of motive both to characters who are major players in historical events and to their most abject subjects. He makes the thoughts of Napoleon, his wives and generals, as banal and elevated as those of ordinary folk affected by the vagaries of their so-called superiors; he forcefully exposes Europeans’ barbarism in the abhorrent treatment of the beautiful slave Josephine and her brother Mr Hendrik.