What Napoleon Could Not Do Book Summary - What Napoleon Could Not Do Book explained in key points
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What Napoleon Could Not Do summary

DK Nnuro

A Novel

26 mins
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    What Napoleon Could Not Do
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    Part 1: Divorce

    The highest compliment Mr. Nti paid anyone was to say they’d done what Napoleon couldn’t. He meant they’d conquered things and places the French emperor only dreamed of. 

    America was one of those places. Mr. Nti’s daughter, Belinda, hadn’t just made it there – she’d succeeded, too. She had a career and a husband; she was wealthy. She’d achieved what millions of Ghanaians hoped to achieve. She’d made the United States her own. 

    Two decades had passed since her departure when Mr. Nti picked up the phone one hot and humid day in Kumasi, Ghana’s sprawling second city, and heard Belinda’s voice. He said what he’d often said about Napoleon. She wasn’t sure. She was still waiting for the document that would secure her right to remain in the US: a green card. Her life there remained precarious. He tried to reassure her: not even the American government could undo what she’d done. 

    The man in the next room overheard Mr. Nti’s conversation through the thin walls. He knew such praise implied an unflattering comparison. Next to his younger sister, Jacob could only come off second-best. Not wishing to hear more, he slipped out of the house. 

    Sure enough, the conversation turned to Mr. Nti’s troubling eldest son. While he had three children in all – Jacob, Belinda, and Robert – Jacob, now 40-years-old, always seemed to be at the heart of problems. And the next day for Jabob would be tough: Jacob’s divorce from his wife in America, Patricia, was to be finalized. 

    Kumasi is the heart of Ghana’s Ashanti region – an administrative division that maps onto the borders of the once-powerful Ashanti Empire. It’s customary in Ashanti culture for the families of divorcees to meet before a marriage is annulled. The ceremony mirrors the wedding, but rather than coming together to celebrate the union, the families air their grievances about its end. Once resentments have been voiced, fruit schnapps are passed around. Once everyone has drunk from a communal cup, the hatchet is considered buried.

    Mr. Nti and his brothers, he told Belinda, would do what was expected of them in this social ritual: they would defend Jacob’s honor and lay the blame for the divorce at Patricia's door. But the accusations he expected to hear leveled against Jacob weren't baseless. In this matter, as in others, Jacob seemed to lack resolve and the ability to see things through. 

    Jacob’s marriage had been arranged by Belinda. During one of those quiet conversations Jacob couldn’t help overhearing, she had offered to find her brother a wife. She succeeded. too – one more triumph in her illustrious record. Patricia, a Ghanaian-born nurse, had been Belinda’s roommate during their college days in Washington, DC. Patricia, who wanted to marry a man from the old country, agreed to Belinda’s proposal. 

    Belinda and Mr. Nti persuaded Patricia’s family and arranged for Jacob to apply for a visa at the American embassy with the help of one of Mr. Nti’s old friends. The visa was a formality, the man said – all Jacob needed to do was pass a simple interview and a few easy tests and he’d be free to join Patricia in America. 

    Jacob, though, flunked the interview and failed the tests. Patricia waited five years, dutifully sending her husband twice as much money as he himself earned each month. But every further attempt to secure a visa failed. And then one day Jacob learned that Patricia’s “roommate” in Washington wasn’t a female nurse, as she’d said, but a man – her new lover. 

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    What is What Napoleon Could Not Do about?

    What Napoleon Could Not Do (2023) explores the contrasting experiences of two Ghanaians, Jacob and Belinda, and their aspirations in the United States. Jacob, an awkward computer programmer who still lives with his father, wants to join his wife in America but is foiled by visa denials. His sister, Belinda, meanwhile, has studied in the US and married an American – Wilder, a prosperous Black Texan businessman. But she, too, contends with disappointment: as she waits for her green card, her perception of America is soured by racism. Their journeys reflect the allure and letdowns of life in a foreign land, and the narrative insightfully captures how each grapples with dreams both realized and thwarted.

    Who should read What Napoleon Could Not Do?

    • Readers interested in immigrant experiences
    • Fans of emotional family dramas
    • Anyone who loves character-driven stories

    About the Author

    NK Nnuro is a Ghanaian-born writer based in Iowa. A graduate of John Hopkins and the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, he previously taught creative writing at the University of Iowa and is currently the curator of special projects at the University of Iowa Stanley Museum of Art. What Napoleon Could Not Do is his first novel. 

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