Book Review: ‘What Napoleon Could Not Do’ by DK Nnuro

DK Nnuro in conversation with Tameka Cage Conley

Prairie Lights, Iowa City, Wednesday, Feb. 8 at 7 p.m., Free

Stanley Reads Book Club: ‘What Napoleon Could Not Do’

UI Stanley Museum of Art, Iowa City, Saturdays, Feb. 25, March 25 and April 29, 2 p.m., Free

Early in DK Nnuro’s debut novel, a Ghanaian father presiding over his son’s divorce ritual is introduced by his well-read brother to the concept of schadenfreude. “Delighting in [someone else’s] misery,” it’s defined. Again and again, the characters in What Napoleon Could Not Do (out Feb. 7 from Riverhead Books) dance around this concept, and again and again, find it lacking. This is not presented as an excess of humanity, though, so much as an inability to connect to emotion.

It is mirrored by their similar inability to delight in the joy of others. When confronted with joy, the novel’s central characters pick at it, examine it, search for surreptitious intent. Doubt is given a place of privilege over credence, to the extent that there is an anxiety hovering over each scene — an expectation of disappointment, an atmospheric Chekhov’s gun. Nnuro lays his characters bare before the reader with a Dostoyevskian interiority, expertly enmeshing the experience of reading with the anxiety and uncertainty that the characters themselves feel.

What Napoleon Could Not Do examines the lives of siblings Jacob Nti and Belinda Thomas. Belinda is the academic success, whose skills and contacts got her accepted to boarding school in the U.S., then university and law school. The lack of a green card made employment difficult, leading to an early marriage to a man nearly twice her age. Jacob is back in Ghana, with few prospects and a dwindling sense of hope that he will ever make it to the states. His divorce, from a Ghanaian woman living in the U.S., after five years of long-distance marriage and many failed emigration attempts, launches the novel.

Belinda, whose husband is a Black American, is aware that the U.S. is not the promised land that some of her family back home still envision. Her perspective is described as “… her fury over America’s singular skill at simultaneously engendering and dashing hopes.” This thread positions the U.S. in opposition to its immigrants, Blacks and Africans in opposition to white Americans and wealth in opposition to poverty in ways that consistently deny the reader any sense of schadenfreude. All are victims, in a sense, not of America, but of the American dream: an almost Buddhist assertion that wanting itself is what destroys us.

The novel is anchored by Nnuro’s keen visual sensibilities. It should come as no surprise to any reader that he currently serves as curator of special projects at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. Every angle into this story is a visual one, from the flowers in the Nti family’s garden to the lushness of kente fabric to the darkness of a road in a blackout.

What Napoleon Could Not Do is a deeply engaging examination of what it means to emigrate, what defines home for an immigrant and what defines family for people who have not seen each other in decades. Nnuro spins moments into landscapes and memories into tapestries, inviting the reader into the hearts of a family that struggles to understand the differences between the world they hoped for and the world that is.

This article was originally published in Little Village Central Iowa issue 011.