Jacques-Olivier Boudon, La Campagne d'Egypte. Paris: Belin, 2018. 320 pp. 24€ (pb). ISBN 978-2410015270.
Reviewed by Ian Coller
"In his opening chapter, Boudon briefly discusses the origins of the Egyptian plan, giving us a glimpse of the interlocking ambitions of Talleyrand and Bonaparte. Eschewing the myth that the plan was purely the whim of Bonaparte himself, Boudon emphasizes Talleyrand’s “colonial policy” (p. 15) and the cultural context of “fascination” with Egypt. We should be suspicious of Talleyrand’s apparent interest in new colonies, which seemed to evaporate the moment Bonaparte left Toulon....Boudon is much better on the French themselves, drawing on a large corpus of diaries, memoirs and archival documents to present a quasi-prosopographical account of the French army “on the eve of conquest”. Capsule biographies help to individualize the 45,000-strong army, but also set up his dramatis personae, allowing him to trace their itineraries and experiences as revealed in their writings. Boudon’s montage is neutral, avoiding editorializing and allowing the various characters to emerge onto the scene....Chapter seven, “The War Without Mercy,” candidly confronts the atrocities committed in the course of this invasion, from mutilation and massacre to cultural destruction and religious desecration....The last three chapters of the book recount what is frequently neglected in popular accounts--the continuation of the occupation after the departure of Bonaparte, not as a coda, but as an integral element of the story....Ultimately, despite its glossy packaging, this is not a book with many heroes. Its strength is in bringing this exoticized and mythologized event into a more prosaic relation with other military campaigns, while recognizing its brutality, not as an outlier, but as an innovation that would feed other conflicts to come: from the ghastly attempt to reimpose slavery on Haiti to the guerilla war in Spain that would give rise to the horrors unforgettably drawn by Goya, and ultimately help to condition the colonial violence of France’s empire in North Africa and beyond. If there is a larger global story to be told about this key event, this is a refreshing, if sobering account from the French perspective. It is a useful book to serve as a short and accessible introduction to a moment still highly worthy of our interest."