Bonaparte, the Entrepreneur

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May 2, 2010

Translated by Sandra Hoffmann

Today Zeek celebrates the 150th anniversary of Theodor Herzl’s birth on May 2, 1860 with what we believe to be the first English translation of a short story he published in 1900. By the time this story first appeared, Herzl had already made a name for himself as a journalist, achieved modest success as a playwright, and had galvanized the modern political movement of Zionism. At the age of 40, Herzl was a veteran organizer, a figure of both controversy and respect, and an intimate of statesmen and powerbrokers. But the prophet of Jewish statehood had yet to assume the title of ‘great man’ that we now assign him.

This story, “Bonaparte, the Entrepreneur,” is fascinating because it reveals Herzl’s reflections on history and on the role of ‘great men’ at a point in his life when his personal fortune had dwindled, Zionism was unpopular, and practical efforts at mass settlement in Palestine seemed a pipe-dream. And although the story lacks literary sophistication by today’s standards, “Bonaparte, the Entrepreneur” remains significant because it is one of the first alternate history tales published in the 20th century.

Here, Herzl imagines what would have happened had the French Revolution failed and the Ancien Régime been restored. Herzl’s what-if story compels us today to reflect on historical contingency: on what might have happened had the author himself, like his fictional Napoleon, ‘missed his opportunity’ for greatness.

– Adam Rovner, Hebrew translations editor

The Duchess, the Marquise, the Viscount de Bois-Vermoulu, and Mister Godefroy, the academic, turned from the Rue St. André des Arts into an even narrower, dirtier alley. Mister de Bois-Vermoulu was leading the party.

“I’m starting to fear for my life, Viscount!” exclaimed the Duchess.

“We have already reached our destination, my Ladies,” replied the man who was spoken to. “But from now on I will not tolerate that you use my title. Here I am simply known as Mr. Dubois.”

“You appear to have some fine acquaintances, my dear!” laughed the Marquise. “So this is why we had to dress like our porters’ wives for this excursion. Quite amusing!”

The Viscount said: “I am not sure, by the way, if I will still be recognized. It’s been so long….Here we are at the Hôtel de l’Eperon. Salute it, dear Ladies and Mr. Godefroy! This is where I resided during the worst days in our history.”

“Greetings!” said the academic Godefroy, smiling.

They stood in front of the low entrance door of the inn. The Viscount continued: “This is where I dined on the day that our dear Queen was dragged to the scaffold by the murderers.”

“I would not have been able to eat a single thing on that day,” muttered the Duchess.

“I am not saying that I had an appetite, Madame. I simply had to sit down at the table as usual. Otherwise I would have drawn attention to myself. Woe to the suspect! But you can certainly imagine how I felt. The mob around me was making jokes about the execution. I couldn’t be of any help to poor Marie Antoinette, even if I had committed some folly. I swallowed my tears with the miserable soup. I still remember it as if it had happened yesterday and not twenty-seven years ago….By the way, that does not make me any younger!”

“And this is where you want us to dine, Mr. Dubois?” asked the Marquise, “Do you believe the soup is now any better?”

“No, but he will spice it up with historical memories,” explained Mr. Godefroy with a trace of irony.

“Yes, yes, come on in!” decided the Duchess. “We can eat well any day. I understand our friend. After such a commemorative meal, we will return home in even better spirits.”

“Return to the palaces that were restored to you thanks to God and King,” added Mr. Godefroy, of whom no one ever knew if he was being serious.

The Hôtel de l’Eperon housed a miserable tavern. The whitewashed walls were filthy, spider webs hung from the ceiling corners, and on the main wall a bad likeness of His Majesty, the reigning King Louis XVIII served as the only decoration.

The Marquise shuddered at the sight of the food-stained cloth spread on their table. But the brave Duchess whispered into her ear: “How glad our mothers would have been in ninety-three had they been able to be here instead of imprisoned in La Conciergerie.”

There were only a few other guests in the dining room, which was dimly lit by oil lamps. The brightest area was next to the entrance, so that from the bar one could see those coming in.

The innkeeper, a burly man of fifty, greeted them and took their orders with some amazement. A meal for four people that might cost eleven or twelve francs was quite extraordinary at the Hôtel de l’Eperon. Considering the size of the order, he decided to cover the stained table-cloth with a clean napkin.

The Marquise breathed a sigh of relief: “Now I can imagine,” she said, “what things must have been like in those terrible times, when a man like you had to dine in such a hovel. My poor friend!”

“And you have no idea how richly I lived back then! A small meal cost me four to five thousand francs.”

“You must be joking. Here, at the Hôtel de l’Eperon?”

“He is speaking of the assignats, Madame,” explained the academic. “The money was worth so little that coachmen would ask six thousand francs for a one-hour ride. Well then, that finally drove the terrible, mismanaged régime into the ground! The crop was snatched from the farmer, the city-dweller was cheated out of his wages and property by the Central Bank.”

“Oh, so that’s why they called back our good King!”

“History appears not to be the dear Marquise’s forte!” smiled the Viscount. “Of course, she was a little child when all this happened.”

Godefroy added: “And, luckily, as the Old Order returned, the Marquise did not have to learn anything new.”

“Please, don’t think of me as being that uneducated! I know that our King asked help from other monarchs and came back to the country through their support. And indeed I find that quite proper. Kings have to do this kind of service to each other. Today it’s me, tomorrow you……What? You are laughing? It wasn’t all like that?”

“No, my child!” said the Duchess. “After the Terror came the Directory that lasted for some years and lead wars against other countries until all the Republican armies were defeated and foreign monarchs moved into France. Then the Directors were chased out and Louis XVIII came back to the throne he deserved.”

“It could not have turned out any other way,” said Mr. Godefroy. “The revolution did not produce much talent in governance, just enthusiasts, talkers, fools, swindlers, thieves, and murderers. One single capable human being who knew how to manage, command, and lead might possibly have been able to save the Republic from its downfall.”

“Or he would have stuffed it into his pocket,” said the Viscount.

The academic nodded: “That’s possible, too. But where was this man? Maybe he was there and just by some coincidence he did not step out into the light? Maybe he missed his opportunity? Perhaps he should have walked on the right, but instead he walked on the left. Or he was a quarter of an hour late for a meeting. The opportunity was missed and nothing could bring it back. Or, if he was a soldier, he died at the Rhine, in Italy, or in the Netherlands. He served under the Generals–Hoche, Pichegru, Moreau or Schérer–and he died in a military hospital because his wounds were not properly cared for. Or he stayed alive and lost confidence just before he would have been successful.”

“And you are implying?”

“I am implying that….”

A remarkable appearance interrupted the academic’s speech, which he subsequently forgot to continue. The door was opened with a mighty blow, and a short, pudgy, elderly man stood in its frame. The light of the oil lamps that illuminated the entrance flickered upon him.

“Pétout!” yelled the man towards the bar. “Has nothing arrived for me?”

Pétout, the innkeeper, who was in the process of trying to clean a glass with a dirty rag, dropped everything and stomped towards the door. He raised his hand as if he were performing a military salute, touched his forehead, and reported firmly: “Nothing, General!”

The fat old man in the door dropped his mighty chin onto his chest for a moment after receiving the report. It was impossible to read the expression on his face because his hat sat low on his forehead and cast a shadow on his face, but the man’s posture revealed his disappointment. The aristocratic party watched him carefully. His clothes were quite worn, but clean. His shoes were out of shape. His black felt hat glimmered with shades of red in some places. His left hand grasped a cane which was held behind his back. He had thrust his right hand between two buttons of his gray tunic. He stood there for a while, his head on his chest. Then he straightened. His clean-shaven, pale, fat face was now fully illuminated. He had strangely demanding eyes that were pinned on the innkeeper when he asked: “Did anybody come by?”

“Nobody, General!”

“Well then, Pétout, I will return. I have to move a little. The blood is getting thick, Pétout! …..Good bye!”

He closed the door behind him abruptly before the innkeeper was able to give him the honor of a goodbye.

The gentlemen and noble ladies looked at each other in amazement. The innkeeper passed by them to the kitchen. Godefroy called him: “Say, innkeeper, who was this?”

Pétout came closer, scratched himself behind the ear and replied with an uncertain smile: “One of our regulars, a salesman who is doing business with the Seine skippers. I believe he also finds rental apartments for those who don’t want to go through the trouble themselves. His name is Bonaparte.”

“Strange name,” remarked the Duchess, “doesn’t sound French at all.”

“It seemed to me you called him ‘General,’” said the Viscount.

“That’s right. An old habit of mine. I served under him.”

“So he was indeed a general?” inquired Godefroy.

“Quite right!” replied the innkeeper. “Even though his status as a general was not undisputed. Well, he was a Republican general. As you know, in those days things were erratic. One day one was a captain, the next a general, the day after nothing at all, or everything–or dead. I served under him in Toulon in the Battery of Fearless Men. That was us, bombs and grenades. I still have a copy of one day’s order in which he mentioned me. It is dated the ninth of Pluviôse of the year two, in the city of Port-la-Montagne. Mister Bonaparte may have skipped a few ranks in his promotion, or there may have been other irregularities in his advancement, but for us, he counted fully, as if he had been a true general. We obeyed him and we loved him. I want to tell you one thing: we were afraid of him, us, the men of the Battery of Fearless Men. And the same could be said of the men from the other batteries. See, even today when he enters, I respect him as if he were my commander. Even though I know that he is not a general, but merely a poor old salesman. He has something in his eyes that makes you obey, want it or not. If Monsieur Bonaparte entered right now and demanded from me: ‘Pétout! Shoulder the rammer! We will march against the Tuileries.’ By Golly, I believe I would follow him.”

“How interesting!” whispered the Duchess.

“Mister Pétout,” said the Viscount, “wouldn’t you like to have a glass of wine with us and tell us a little more about your General?”

“With great pleasure! To the ladies’ health!”

The academic thought and muttered: “Bonaparte! I must have heard that name somewhere before… Wait! Mister Pétout, wasn’t there a certain Bonaparte who owned a huge warehouse–until a few years ago? What was it called?”

“The Warehouse of the Universe! Of course! This Bonaparte and my General are the same person!”

“How is that possible?”

“The Defense Minister didn’t want to confirm his rank as a General, and overall he didn’t fare well with the bureaucrats. They let him file petitions and wait in their lobbies. Finally, he lost his patience. We took off our uniforms and said goodbye to being soldiers.”

“We? You too?”

“Indeed. I didn’t know where my General wanted to go, but I followed him. Well, those were hard times. Sometimes we even lacked bread. It was hard back then to find any food. Maybe the gentlemen still recall what things were like back then in 1795. The ladies will be too young to know….To your health, my ladies!….Well, where was I? Right, I was speaking about the food. That was my first masterpiece. ‘Pétout,” he said to me, do you know how one can make a lot of money these days, real, gold?’–‘No, General,’ I said, ‘I have no idea.’ And indeed, I had no idea. But he did. ‘We have to bring butter, eggs, and poultry to Paris!’ However, this was easier said than done. First, we needed money to buy these goods. Second, we had to transport them to the city through a landscape teeming with thieves. But Bonaparte could do anything he wanted to do. He obtained money for buying the goods by gambling on rents. He undertook that together with a certain Bourrienne. They rented a few houses on credit in the Rue Montholon and rented the flats to smaller parties that had to pay in advance. With these funds, we traveled to Normandy. There, he bought up all he could get and established a supply line. Soon, the farmers knew us and secretly brought to us what they could spare, otherwise it would have been stolen from them by the so-called agencies by way of requisitions. Because of that, we bought very cheaply and sold for a high price in Paris. First, of course, we had to make the overnight journey to Paris. Compared to that, common smuggling at the border is nothing but child’s play, as the smugglers are dealing with regular guards, while we were dealing with hungry thieves. Often we heard gun shots whistling behind us when we rushed through town after miserable town. You must know the villages around Paris had already been ransacked by the revolutionary agencies. That went on for a few months. Bonaparte and I rode in the coach almost every night, back and forth. It took me years to catch up with the sleep I lost in those days. But my General seemed always well-rested. He is made of iron, without any needs–well, if any, then women…”

The Viscount cleared his throat audibly.

Pétout understood immediately: “I am not suggesting anything, but, in short, we made some nice money. That is to say, he made it. I was always nothing but his sergeant, just like back then in Port-la-Montagne with the Fearless Men. When the business began to flourish, he put his family before anyone else. They weren’t worth a lot, his family, but he was attached to them. He always thought of others before he thought of himself. His mother, brothers and sisters, his friends, they were always the first ones he’d worry about. The food business grew fast. He employed his brothers as guards, his sisters sold the goods, and his stingy mother was in charge of the cash box. The most difficult and dangerous things he always did himself. You just had to like him, because he didn’t spare himself any hardship. Only his siblings, whom he treated charitably, were never really fond of him.”

“Indeed”, said Mister Godefroy, “charity is the greatest insult one can inflict on a relative.”

Pétout continued: “When the supply from Paris became steadier, the General understood that our trade would no longer be that profitable. He bought up a few things that had declined sharply in value during the time of Terror. At Bonaparte’s one could buy and sell a variety of goods. One time, he took over all the coffins from a bankrupt coffin maker, another time he purchased lions, snakes and monkeys from the estate of an animal handler. His plan was simple and great: he wanted to establish the Warehouse of the Universe. And so he did. Nobody knew why he piled up these manifold and random goods. It would have been a jumbled mess without his sense of order. I was around him every day. I saw everything he did, and yet I had the feeling that magic was at work as he joined a complex of houses, tore down separating walls and had passage ways built. The whole enterprise received a name: the Warehouse of the Universe. Whatever a man could need from cradle to grave, he could find there. And out of the chaos of items, he created order. All threads ran together in his hands. He was knowledgeable about everything he sold, agricultural tools, books, sails, women’s dresses, live crocodiles, toys. He knew every method of fabrication and knew when each thing would be needed. He ordered new hat styles, silk patterns, credenzas, and glassware. He defined fashion. To make sure he could sell old goods, he established branch stores in the province. He put brothers and brothers-in-law in charge of these branches: Joseph in Lyon, Louis in Marseille, Jérôme in Nancy, Murat in Toulouse–in short, all those who were related to him in any way were put in high positions. In the flagship store his assistants were individuals he had picked up somewhere or other and taken a liking to, almost all of them ungrateful people. But he always saw far beyond the little people who had been made big by their connections.

“Into space,” reflected the academic Godefroy.

The innkeeper continued: “Our boss was quite envied. People said he’d been lucky. But that isn’t true. Never had a man worked as he had done. How often did I see him nail up boxes or open packages? No work was too miserable or too tedious for him. He was how a master should be: good toward the lowest of his employees and relentless toward himself. That was one of the reasons that I felt such pain at his collapse.”

“So he did collapse?” asked the Marquise.

“Of course, Madame! Didn’t you just see him? How it happened, however, I cannot understand. I am probably too stupid for that. I only know that they say he exhausted himself. His enterprises were too extended, he was too audacious, his staff was too weak or too disloyal. When the business grew so large that not even he could oversee everything, people started to engage in bad business practices. The branch stores failed, the guards no longer watched the stock carefully, and our boss stretched his credit further and further.

“The size is the reason for the collapse,” said Mister Godefroy.

“Well, my dear Sir,” the innkeeper continued, “You cannot imagine how the hearts of the little people bled when he went down. The big shots who gained a lot through him got over it easily. But not us. To me, the collapse now is nothing but a dream, just as the process of building the enterprise was a dream. Leftover goods, growing debt, a staggering embarrassment. And he fought to the last minute, looking for a way out. He came up with more and more colossal plans to save the Warehouse, until the creditors came after him. With his credit gone, the entire house collapsed. People call this bankruptcy, but for me that is too bad a word for the General of Toulon, even though his status as a general was questionable and he is now reduced to living hand-to-mouth. Sometimes he comes here in the evening and asks for nothing but a piece of cheese because he lacks even the money to order meat. Then he says he has no appetite. He would slap me in the face if I dared giving him anything for free.”

The academic said: “Dear innkeeper, among those who went bankrupt are probably many who resemble your Bonaparte. This case has larger dimensions. The entrepreneur is a calculating dreamer. The basic formula of the entrepreneur is always the same, no matter what items or values you want to put in the place of the mathematical symbols.”

Pétout saluted mechanically in military style: “Yes, Sir! Even though I don’t understand what you are telling me.”

And the Marquise smiled: “Admittedly, Godefroy, neither do I.”

The academic continued laying out his thoughts: “Let’s imagine now that this Bonaparte would not have gone to the left, but to the right back then; what would have become of the chaos of the Republic? One tends to place too much weight in character and too little on mere chance when judging important personalities. I mean, even great men may be seeds that don’t always sprout. The question is, however, if it is good or bad for humankind that not all great men step into the light of history.”

The door was kicked open and the short fat man entered again.

“Pétout!” he called “Bring me a piece of cheese!”

“Nothing else?” the innkeeper dared.

“No, you fool!” the old man roared angrily. “I don’t have an appetite today. Do you want to throw me out of your greasy cave, you idiot?”

His screaming roused a fat, elderly, sloppily dressed maidservant who appeared from behind the counter.

“What is it with this noise again?” she yelled.

At seeing the woman, Bonaparte’s face lit up: “Come here, my beautiful Cathérine! You bring me the cheese! It’ll taste much better that way.”

She shuffled closer and placed the plate in front of him. He attempted to pinch her cheek. She, however, smacked him on the hand. He looked at her tenderly and laughed.

Mister Godefroy said quietly to the others: “For his personal happiness, his past enterprises are apparently of no importance. No matter if the enterprise had been smaller or larger–in any case he would have been the same. Every man has the most important part of his destiny in his character. His engagement in such a business as the Warehouse of the Universe is nothing but a dream. The will and the emotions are everything; objects are nothing.”

“Oh, ho!” called the Viscount, “are you implying that it is of little difference if one loves a princess or a slut?!”

“Perhaps!” the academic said, smiling.

The Marquise pouted: “What an awful philosopher you are!”

Bonaparte ate his cheese. He had regained his good spirits: “Pétout, you can sit down next to me. I want to explain something to you.” He lowered his voice and explained to his trusty Pétout, who had always loved him and never understood him, his new plan for the construction of an even larger Warehouse of the Universe.

Translator Sandra Hoffmann is a native of Leipzig, Germany. She holds an M.A. in Secondary Education from the University of Leipzig and an M.A. in Spanish Language and Culture from the University of Granada, Spain. She is a National Board Certified Spanish teacher working in Redmond, Washington.

A note on the text: this story appeared as “Der Unternehmer Buonaparte” in Theodor Herzl’s Philosophische Erzählungen (Verlag von Gebrüder Paetel, 1900).

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