I am the last person to have heard Napoleon's voice. If a recording
of a voice is a voice; if an imitation
of a voice is a voice; if the memory
in itself is a voice in my head, then that is what I have. It is preserved within me alone, and I have never tried to pass it on. I have never been good at imitating voices, and if I attempted it now from my poor childhood memory, perhaps I would distort it too much for it to count as transmission. Then it would die with me: in fifty or sixty years from now the last memory of Napoleon Bonaparte
's voice will vanish from the earth.
It was some twenty years ago that it passed to me, and within two or three years I was the sole inheritor. I'm not sure when the old man died, though that could be looked up somewhere; and I'm not sure how old I was. Perhaps six or seven. If I was five, would the event have impressed itself on me so? I knew who Napoleon was, but I was a bright child and would surely have known that when I was five. My mother can't help me: she had never heard me mention the recording until recently, though she knew I spent a lot of time with the old man, after school, until he shut up his shop. From the earliest I can remember I have been fascinated by antiques and bric-a-brac, and could curl up amongst them, brass and oak and japanning and dust, with my nose in some brittle nineteenth-century history or storybook. The old man quickly learnt I could be trusted to treat his volumes with care, even at five: I knew how to bookmark properly, and not to bend the spines back, and where to replace them in his shelves when I had finished.
We were saddened when the fire wrecked his shop. It was the first fire I had known of nearby, half a street away, and the first I had seen the wet, blackened damage from, with its peculiar stench. Part of the back room was untouched, some of the big things along the left wall were saved, but the little counter full of hidden drawers, that was reduced to nothing. It was perhaps a couple of years earlier that he had got me to listen to the recording, because I was admiring a gramophone that had come in and that he was fitting its horn onto. He had fetched the disc from a hiding-place under his counter -- he never let me explore there, for he said he had too many delicate things, and I could handle them when I was older.
The calamity hastened his own death, though he was very old anyway. By that time I knew about death. So I never saw what else was in those drawers, precious or fragile or unique. He had seen a lot, and I estimate now he must have been in his eighties. He had never met the owner of the voice on the record, but his elder brother had. All his brothers and sisters died in Buchenwald, except the two who had starved in Łódź. Somehow he had been more resilient. After five years in a Ukrainian prison he had been allowed to move to Hungary and set up as a bookseller.
He didn't know about the recording: it wasn't that that he was interested in as he sought news of the old family house. They had not been rich, but there had been a few trinkets that a struggling middle-class family could almost call their treasures or heirlooms. His last surviving sister had told him she had seen their father hiding things in the coal-cellar. The story prompted his curiosity, even in the bitterness of a concentration camp, and he was going to ask her more about it when he thought about it again two days later. But death comes too quickly.
Gerstein was his name, I should say. We never knew his forename. I could look it up, somewhere, I suppose. Mr Gerstein wasn't even sure where the Napoleonic connexion was. He had heard his grandfather, then in a parlous state and with only a few years left to him, mention Napoleon once, saying that his own father had been at Austerlitz. That was what he repeated to me there in that dim golden shop some time after five o'clock, when I was a little child eagerly taking it in. I seem to remember its being dark out, so it must have been around winter, but I can't remember cold. Perhaps it was late autumn; perhaps he had a radiator on. He was really talking to himself, pondering once more where the three French medals and two ribbons had come from. "Had been at Austerlitz," he repeated. "Was he a soldier, or a doctor, or a little boy?"
The only explanation was in the folded yellow papers that came with it, and all they talked about was the history of the recording and the person who made it. It was in French, so at that age I couldn't read a word of it; and he was rusty and unsure. All he knew was that these had been in the bundle under the hidden trapdoor in their old house in Łódź. He had burgled his own house. The family were out, the Poles who lived there now, and he bore them no animosity for they were not the ones who had moved in after the War, nor even the ones following them. A semblance of normality had come to the country after its devastation, and houses were passed on legally. The cellar was boarded up, so he broke into it with a crowbar. He had no torch, only a box of matches, and it took him a while to find the trapdoor, which strangely he had not known about when he had lived there. Because it was so dark and he was in a panic to get away, he dragged the whole box up into the light.
There was a bit of silver plate in there, nothing to make him rich in the West where he was heading next, but more than he owned in his present existence, and once outside he was going to snatch those glittering pieces and throw the rest of the box into the nearby river. A moment's thought made him realise it was easier to keep storing them in the box than to hide their irregular shapes under his coat. So he took a few unwanted odds and ends with him, medals and a gramophone record and yellow papers, on his trip back to Hungary where a smuggler's skiff and a night voyage punctuated by tracers and bullets awaited him.
"I'd forgotten I had this," he told me. "You reminded me by playing with that machine. I've never listened to this, just kept it here with all the rest. There's a funny old story to it, if you can believe this writing."
"Tell me the funny story," I had said.
Bertrand Soligny had been ten when his father, a doctor, had taken their family out to Africa. Young Bertrand had imagined fierce, terrible, black natives with bones in their noses and teeth around their necks, and constant warfare. He was very surprised to find none of that, but a small island, where the people were white and spoke what his father told him was English. All except a small coterie who congregated around an old man. Bertrand wondered why this man, shorter than all around him, was the centre of so much attention. He would watch him brooding, strolling about the parts of the island that the English soldiers would allow him to reach, and once Bertrand spoke to him, fearfully, uncertainly.
When he told his father this, he used mimicry, as he always did. It was automatic in him to imitate the voices of his elders. It seemed to amuse them, and he had a talent for it, so at ten it was natural to play with this talent. "Always remember that!" his father told him. The boy was strangely impressed by the elder Soligny's earnestness on this point. The other French-speakers listened politely to his imitations and uttered "Remarkable!", and patted his head and offered him sugared plums.
One day, for reasons he never understood, they packed hastily, the whole family, and went to a small waiting rowboat, which in the dark and swelling waters of an oncoming storm barely got them to safety on a ship anchored around a headland. He never had a chance to say another word to the proud old man the others danced attendance on.
The storm became terrible. His brother died on board after about eight days, and in the evening of that fateful morning they saw land for the first time. Wrecked on the beach, there were some fourteen or fifteen survivors, of crew and families. They had no way of knowing it at the time, but they were on the coast of Angola. A war was brewing between two tribes, one rebelling from the sway of Portuguese missionaries and the other seeking to take advantage of the confusion. Two nuns found them, but they had nowhere to go, for the nuns had fled from a massacre. Then Bertrand Soligny's mother developed fever and died.
It was three months before they were rescued, before another Portuguese ship came to replenish the ruined settlement. His father was dead by then too, caught between wild animals and a turbulent stream: they heard his screams but never found him. But by then he had learnt he could please the nuns with his imitations too, and they especially asked for the man on the island. They put him in an orphanage when they got to Europe. At fourteen he caught cholera and was among those who survived it after weeks of fever, not the three-quarters who succumbed.
In 1830 he was once more in Paris, manning barricades in the July Revolution. He was grazed on the head by a bullet and left for dead. By the time of the Franco-Prussian War and the Commune he was himself aged, and starvation almost claimed him. Still from time to time he would trot out his Napoleon voice, and the few words that the great man had addressed him. So it was that in 1891 or thereabouts someone romantic and visionary who had one of Mr Berliner's new recording-machines heard of Bertrand Soligny and wondered if the machine could capture any of the spirit of the Emperor. The eldest Gerstein brother, now long gone to mud and ash, was one of those named as a young child being present at that session.
I have since heard that these old discs can be so fragile that playing them once now can ruin them. Mr Gerstein played it to me three times in succession. It was crackly; it was in French. But after the second playing he looked at me with a curious turn of his eyes and asked me if I could repeat the foreign words. Always quick with language, I did repeat what little I could. So after the third hearing, now primed for what to listen for, I repeated more of it and with more confidence. He wrote down the words on a little bit of paper for me. Not all of them, not all the content of the disc, just those few seconds when the ageing speaker's voice noticeably changed to a different accent.
For some reason I kept the paper. I threw it away when I was sixteen and cleaning up after a house move, but I glanced at it again and remembered the incident, and the actual words came back to me as a voice in my head. They seemed so familiar I didn't give them a second thought. It was only about five years later that, happening to discuss old homes with Mum, Mr Gerstein's shop came up. I mentioned the recording, and she was interested. It was she who pointed out that I was now the only living person ever to have heard Napoleon's voice.