As in The Battle (2000), Rambaud brings alive a Napoleonic defeat, this time none other than the Russian invasion of 1812, with its disastrous retreat from Moscow.
The story opens after the battle of Borodino, west of Moscow, has been fought between Napoleon’s Grande Armée and the Russian forces under Prince Kutuzof. That battle resulted in Kutuzof retreating eastward, beyond Moscow, leaving the great city apparently abandoned and empty, irresistible bait for Napoleon, who moved right in, finding the Kremlin fine, suitable, and grand—until the trap was sprung and the city set ablaze by Kutuzof’s arsonists. Rambaud’s extraordinary descriptions of the inferno (and looting) are cinematic, terrifying, and astonishingly detailed, as the reader follows at one moment Napoleon himself; at another the dashing but one-handed veteran, Captain d’Herbigny; or the members of a French acting troupe, in Moscow hoping for engagements; or the love-struck young Sebastian Roque, one of the Emperor’s secretaries, who wants only to get back home—or to fall into the embraces of Ornella, an actress in the troupe. The story is known to all: Kutuzof refusing to come back to Moscow and fight, the decision to retreat, the departure from Moscow in October, the sudden onset of a fierce winter, the ungodly suffering and ruin of the Grande Armée. Here, again, Rambaud shows you everything—the freezing, the starving, the snow-blindness, the river-crossings, the madness, the depravity, the death. Pretty Ornella will meet one of the most horrendous fates, while Sebastian Roque will find his way back to Paris, as will Captain d’Herbigny, although the one will find happiness, the other only pathos and despair. Napoleon himself returns in comfort and safety, already preparing, even though the political winds are turning against him, to raise a new army and move on to Leipzig.
Once more from Rambaud, history that’s spectacular, authentic, pitiless, and moving.