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.
Introduction: A compelling study of relationships and identity.
Table of Contents
The American essayist Jelani Cobb has written that the term “African-American” contains a stark dissonance. As he puts it, the hyphen connecting Africa and America is more than simple punctuation – it is a reminder of a tumultuous history.
The biographies of millions of individuals forcibly removed from Africa to America are, he contends, contained in that hyphen. Rather than conjoining terms, as hyphens usually do, it marks a separation. The men and women brought to America were neither fully African nor American. Robbed of the former identity, they were then systematically denied the latter. Rather than a hyphen, Jelani suggests, it would be more accurate to connect the words “African” and “American” with an ambiguous ellipsis.
As he has noted in an interview, DK Nnuro’s debut novel, What Napoleon Could Not Do, inhabits the space of that ellipsis. Ambivalence is his work’s dominant key, and the question “Where do I belong?” resonates throughout his tale.
Whether they are Ghanaians who dream of larger lives in America or Black Americans grappling with their African roots, this is the question that all of Nnuro’s characters pose. Searching for clarity, they confront painful emotions and histories that refuse to yield straightforward answers. Ultimately, they learn to navigate this ambivalence, bridging their dual identities and the vast ocean that separates – and connects – Ghana and the United States.
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.
Part 2: Jacob
After the divorce, Jacob became apathetic – nihilistic, even. He skipped work, drifted aimlessly, and spent his evenings getting drunk in roadside bars frequented by truckers and prostitutes.
Mr. Nti tried to halt this slide into despair. He reminded Jacob of how much he’d wanted Patricia before correcting himself: “Or I should say America. There’s no denying that they are one and the same.” Jacob offered his own correction: they were one and the same.
His rage fastened on his sister. He spat out her name like poison. Belinda, he said to his father, was disturbed – why else would she have stayed in America and missed her own mother’s funeral, despite her means? “It looks to me,” he said, “that she’s lost her mind trying to make sure nobody can ever say there was something she could not achieve.”
In a series of flashbacks, we see Jacob at the beginning of his marriage five years earlier. He’s more hopeful, but there’s an ambivalence in his desire to join Patricia. During one interview at the American embassy, an official implies that Jacob might be gay and asks whether that is why he wants to leave Ghana. Jacob agrees – a half-hearted lie that confuses the official and casts suspicion over his soon-to-be-denied application.
For many of Nnuro’s Ghanaian characters, America is a symbol for being able. It is a place in which larger lives are possible. With each visa rejection, Jacob grows more embittered at his cramped life in Ghana. He has no financial means except those given to him by more able people, leaving him suspended in a state of child-like dependency. His sexuality, meanwhile, is repressed – not because he’s gay, but because of his preference for sadomasochistic sex with women. His desire to be dominated and punished runs counter to what he thinks he ought to be and do as a man. He’s unable to express himself fully in any part of his life – an inability symptomatically reflected in his inability to communicate effectively in interviews.
Nnuro gives readers a vivid sketch of Jacob’s character, but he foregrounds families and their dynamics rather than individual psychologies. Here, it’s the dynamics of sibling rivalry that fascinate him. Each child in a family competes to define themselves as individuals and struggles to show what separates them from their siblings. America isn’t just a symbol for the Nti children – it’s a battlefield. It’s the terrain on which their war of self-definition is fought. At the beginning of his marriage, Jacob could still imagine himself as the victor in this contest. His divorce spells final defeat: as his father has said, it is his sister who has conquered America.
As sometimes happens in such rivalries, the defeated party rejects the once-contested object of desire. As an old fable has it, when the fox found that he couldn’t reach the bunch of grapes he’d been admiring, he turned around and remarked with scorn that it was a foolish thing to wear yourself out trying to get at a bunch of grapes, as they were probably sour anyway. Jacob’s ambivalence about America can be read in this light. But there’s another interpretation: that Jacob has (unconsciously) sabotaged his chances of joining Patricia. If Belinda is desperate to make sure that nobody will ever be able to say there’s something she cannot achieve, there’s one way Jacob can inflict a defeat on his sister: he can destroy the marriage and the life she arranged for him in America.
Part 3: Belinda
Distance alters perception. A sailboat silently gliding on the horizon is a perfect image of calm. It’s only up close that the waves tossing it back and forth become perceptible – that you notice the frantic efforts of the pilot who is winching and winding and ducking.
The perception-altering effect of distance is one of Nnuro’s themes in this novel. Separated by the Atlantic ocean, his characters know each other fleetingly as voices on telephones from thousands of miles away. If Jacob resentfully perceives his sister’s life as an effortless glide from one success to the next, it is in part because he cannot see the mechanics of that life up close.
The America dividing these siblings, Nnuro suggests, is more than a geographic reality – it’s also an imagined place onto which they project fantasies. The ways in which reality and fantasy fail to overlap become apparent in the second section of the novel, which turns to Belinda.
It’s 2011 and we’re in Washington, DC. We find Belinda sitting in the back of a chauffeured limousine on the way to a wedding, her hair dyed a vivid red. She’s wearing a dress of kente – Ghana’s emblematic patterned textile, a cloth once reserved for Ashanti royalty.
Edith, the bride-to-be, and Belinda grew up together in Kumasi in the late ‘80s. At 16, they went to the American embassy where Edith’s father worked to sit the entrance exams for a prestigious prep school in Massachusetts. Both girls were clever and capable, but it was Edith’s father’s string-pulling that got them into the exam room – a favor Mr. Nti never forgot.
Belinda’s train of thought is momentarily interrupted by Laurent, her Congolese-born driver. He talked admiringly about America’s first Black president – Barack Obama. Belinda’s thoughts then drifted to her husband, Wilder, and the night in 2008 on which Obama secured the presidency. Belinda had put out two bottles of champagne to celebrate. Wilder smashed them both. Obama, he said, was a trick of white people, who always permitted black highs so that they could punish Black people more severely with the black lows that inevitably followed. Obama, the highest of black highs, would be followed by black Armageddon. There was nothing to celebrate, he said, a pool of champagne and shards of glass at his feet.
Belinda had tried to see through Wilder’s eyes – to understand how the violence, repression, and hatred he’d experienced as a Black man who’d come up in 1960s Texas informed his views. But she couldn’t reconcile his America with her America – hers was still a symbol of hope.
Imperceptibly, her views changed over the years. They changed as her relationship with Wilder changed. Theirs had been a marriage of convenience at the outset. Wilder, the wealthy Black businessman twenty years her senior, proposed the union when her student visa expired. He gave her what she most desired: access to America and to being able.
The marriage had achieved that. But the green card Wilder’s well-paid lawyers were trying to secure on Belinda’s behalf never came. Her friends downplayed its importance – Wilder, his money, and her degrees surely gave her enough security. Belinda tried to explain why it mattered, not only pragmatically, but as an idea. America, she said, plucked her from Ghana because she was among the best. It kept reassuring her that she was among the best by giving her access to its privileged spaces. And then it delivered the cruel punchline: We’re just toying with you. You’re not one of us. No green card.
The cruelty lay in the ambivalence. America was a country with the singular skill of simultaneously engendering and dashing hopes. Like Wilder said, the highs were invariably followed by crushing lows. The hand that giveth did so to take back what it had offered.
Part 4: Wilder
Vietnam was a sealed black box. In all their years together, Belinda could recall just two occasions on which Wilder had uttered the name of the war in which he’d served as a young man. That it had left deep scars was clear in his way of being; the nature of the wounds he’d suffered in Southeast Asia, though, remained a mystery.
In the third section of the novel, Nnuro emphasizes the psychological history of an individual – Wilder. As far as we can tell, he never tells Belinda about Vietnam – at least not before the novel’s conclusion. Nnuro shows the threads of sympathy and understanding between people, but he also shows that sometimes that’s all there is – thin, tenuous threads. Physical distance can make a person unknowable, but proximity doesn’t guarantee intimacy.
Wilder didn’t have to fight in Vietnam. Born into a rich Texan family, he went to Princeton and studied the family business: oil. As a young Black man in a largely white industry, he made a name for himself with a then-novel idea. Rather than burning or “flaring” off the gas that came out of oil wells – the standard practice at the time – he proposed harnessing the gas and using it to turn electricity-generating turbines. It was a clever idea: at a stroke, a useless byproduct was transformed into a lucrative side-hustle. After that, he could’ve picked any job he liked and named his price. The well-connected company board members keen to hire him would have pulled strings in high places to make sure the army didn’t draft him.
But a strange guilt crept over Wilder, and he enlisted.
In the white-dominated oil industry, he’d felt his Blackness; among Black soldiers, he felt almost white. They didn’t speak or think like him; they weren’t born rich like he had been, and they didn’t know white people who offered to spare them the bloody fight against communist guerillas in Vietnamese jungles and swamps. When news reached them that Martin Luther King had been assassinated, the Black soldiers in his unit mourned in a way he could not. That night, when they struck up the old African-American spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot,” he found himself unable to join in. Ashamed of himself, he retreated to his tent.
A few days later, Wilder, who was a little shorter than average, was sent down a hand-dug tunnel used by guerillas to ambush American patrols. In the cramped, loud, and chaotic fight that ensued, he was badly injured. He woke up in a hospital, amazing the nurses who assumed he was as good as dead. Wilder, though, felt better than he ever had. He was reborn. A new soul had made a home in him – a fiery soul that had kicked his original soul out of its seat.
Released from hospital, he packed his bags and trekked into the Laotian jungle and only stopped when he found a small village. He lived there for five years. Under constant American bombardment, he fell in love and married a Laotian woman; together they raised a neighbor’s child as their own. And then one day that child picked up one of the millions of round metal balls the American airforce had rained down on this impoverished nation – a cluster bomb.
Wilder carried the child’s body back to the village and left her at the door of the hut in which they’d lived. Crazed with grief and guilt, and driven by a primal urge to protect the woman he loved from the death that seemed to follow him wherever he went, he ran.
For a long time after that, there was nothing. The next thing he knew was that he was in New York, a bushy prophet’s beard on his chin and a fierce rage in his heart that wrestled with an even fiercer sorrow.
Part 5: Reconciliation
The news traveled across the Atlantic Ocean, covering the 5,000 miles between Kumasi and Washington before reaching Belinda, who relayed it another 1,200 miles to Houston, Texas.
All that Wilder needed to know was contained in three words: “Alfred is dead.”
Alfred, the son of Jacob and Belinda’s younger brother, Robert, was the joy of the Nti household. Every disappointment, feud, and misgiving that worked to sever links between brothers and sisters, children and parents, was countered by Alfred, who was simultaneously a translator, emissary, and go-between. When Jacob received his sister’s gifts as slights, Alfred welcomed them with gleeful gratitude. When Mr. Nti despaired at his son’s incompetence, Alfred looked up to his uncle and gladly listened to the wisdom he’d managed to acquire in his forty years of life.
Belinda had to return to Ghana – she couldn’t miss a second funeral even if leaving America jeopardized her chances of getting her green card. Wilder said it didn’t matter: they would go and figure things out from there.
A few days after the funeral, as they were sitting on the terrace overlooking the busy main road leading into downtown Kumasi, Mr. Nti asked Wilder how he liked Ghana.
The American replied that it felt like home. Mr. Nti might have thought his guest was simply being polite, but Wilder continued talking. He’d been thinking about the constant blackouts and power shortages plaguing the country, he said. Ghana, he’d learned, was rich in oil – Jacob had told him about the new oil rigs going up along the coast. It struck him that one might use the gas being flared off on those rigs to drive turbines and thus secure a consistent supply of electricity. The more he’d talked things over with Belinda, he added, the more they liked the idea of staying for a while and seeing what opportunities they could find in Ghana.
Nnuro ends his novel on a note of hope. Belinda and Jacob haven’t reconciled, but we catch a glimpse of how a reconciliation might come about.
Wilder allows Jacob to believe that he got the idea about turbines from him – a lie, but a useful one. Jacob warms to his brother-in-law and suggests that he’d be happy to work on the project with him. His father is fond of saying, “You have done what Napoleon could not do,” he tells Wilder. If bringing light to a nation didn’t qualify as a case of what Napoleon couldn’t do, he adds, he didn’t know what would. He then asks Wilder to tell Belinda that he has still not figured out a way of talking to her. It is a small gesture, but clearly one he has found hard to make. It implies, after all, that Jacob has recognized that he cannot blame the rift between him and his sister on her alone. Her obsession with her American success is one part of the story; the other part, he can now admit, has to do with his own shorcomings.
DK Nnuro’s story is about two siblings, Belinda and Jacob, divided by America – the real America and the America onto which they project their fantasies. Both reality and fantasy come between them. Separated by a vast ocean, Jacob’s resentment is directed at his all-too-perfect sister – a fiction she herself has colluded in creating. At the end of the novel, however, there is a promise of reconciliation. America has divided them, but it is an American – Belinda’s husband, Wilder – who acts as a go-between in these siblings’ tentative fence-mending.
About the Author
Society & Culture
The book tells the story of a Ghanaian family that is divided by immigration, distance and expectations. The main characters are Jacob Nti and Belinda Thomas, siblings who have very different experiences of life in America. Jacob, the eldest son, is stuck in Ghana, unable to get a visa to join his wife Patricia, who lives and works as a nurse in the US. His marriage falls apart after five years of separation, and he has to go through a traditional divorce ceremony with his family and in-laws. Belinda, the youngest daughter, is a successful lawyer in Washington DC, married to Wilder Thomas, a wealthy African American businessman. She has achieved everything her father dreamed of, but she is unhappy and restless in her marriage and career. She also feels guilty for arranging Jacob’s marriage and failing to help him emigrate.
The book alternates between the perspectives of Jacob, Belinda and Wilder, as well as their parents, relatives and friends. It explores the themes of identity, culture, race, class, love, betrayal and loss. It also depicts the contrasts and similarities between Ghana and America, showing the challenges and opportunities that each country offers to its citizens and immigrants. The book spans several decades, from the 1990s to the 2020s, and incorporates historical events such as the 9/11 attacks, the Iraq War, the Black Lives Matter movement and the COVID-19 pandemic.
What Napoleon Could Not Do is a captivating and compelling novel that draws the reader into the lives of its complex and flawed characters. Nnuro writes with skill and sensitivity, creating vivid scenes and realistic dialogues that capture the emotions and conflicts of his protagonists. He also uses rich metaphors and symbols, such as flowers, kente cloth and Napoleon’s legacy, to convey deeper meanings and connections. The book is well-researched and informative, providing insights into Ghanaian history, culture and politics, as well as American society and issues. The book also raises important questions about immigration, belonging, family and happiness, without offering easy answers or solutions.
The book is not without flaws, however. Some readers may find the pace too slow or the plot too predictable at times. Some may also feel that the characters are too stereotypical or unsympathetic, especially Wilder, who is portrayed as a selfish and abusive husband. Some may also wish for more resolution or closure at the end of the book, which leaves some loose ends and uncertainties.
Overall, What Napoleon Could Not Do is a powerful and poignant novel that explores the human condition in a globalized world. It is a novel that will make you think, feel and empathize with its characters. It is a novel that deserves to be read and discussed.