European history arrived in our school rooms in British textbooks, which presented events on the Continent through the “Anglo-Saxon” lens. Even these, however, could not distort the strange destiny and glorious achievements of a monarch who rose like a shooting star from an obscure island on the fringes of France to alter the history of his country, continent and the Western world and his dramatic defeat and piteous death (poisoned perhaps by British captors) on a lonely island in the south Atlantic.

There has always been a soft spot in my heart for Napoleon Bonaparte, a romantic figure at the crossroads of history, whose personal fate seemed subsumed in the fortunes of Europe. He left an indelible mark on its politics, administration, military history, even art and culture over a very short span of time (sixteen years from when he became the First Consul in 1799 to 1815, when he was finally defeated at Waterloo).

My mental snapshots about the man and his doings came from literary sources. Browning pages of Abbot's massive ‘Life of Napoleon’, which lay around our ancestral home in a Kerala village, discarded by some early scholar of the family. British and French classics of the period set against the momentous days of the First Empire.

Across the English Channel, this unusually petit warrior ballooned into the monster Boney, the bogeyman whose threat of invasion hung over the Isles till Wellington and Blucher brought him to his knees. Novels of the Regency period too reflected the anxieties and reactions of British families of all classes to the menace.

On the French side, there was Dumas and The Count of Monte Cristo, in which the plot to bring Napoleon back from his first exile at Elba becomes the backdrop to the framing of Edmond Dantes as a traitor so that the hero is banished to the Chateau d'If. Napoleon's doings have even impacted the literature of faraway Russia; the Emperor's campaigns and the aborted march on Moscow are set down in painful detail in Tolstoy's magnum opus, ‘War and Peace’.

These were the snippets from which I built a first collage of impressions about Napoleon's personality and fortunes. Travel to France, Europe and places further afield in Russia and Egypt added colour to the portrait.

The romance of Napoleon’s life lured me to spend summers on the island of Corsica, that hangs like a fruit off the southern edge of France. This was where he was born, the second child in the large family of a minor nobleman and legal functionary, who had thrown in his lot with the French government. Strolling past the beach at the pretty town of Calvi, I discovered that the adage that no man is a hero in his own country applies fully to Napoleon.

Corsicans, as a whole, are bemused when a few tourists make pilgrimages to Ajaccio to view the memorabilia housed in the building where he was born and the statues erected at the Place des Palmiers and the Place d'Austerlitz. Driven by secessionist fervour, the leader they idolise is not Napoleon, who abandoned them for the French mainland, but Pascal Paoli who fought to liberate the island.

Paoli’s statues adorn several Corsican cities. The flavour of Napoleon's birthplace is more Italian than French-the vocabulary of the Corsican patois is closer to the language spoken in neighbouring Sardinia and the Italian coast than it is to any of the southern French dialects.

It was in Paris that Napoleon made his mark as conqueror and ruler. Yet, there are hardly any public statues of the Emperor (apart from "the little corporal" in front of the Musee de l'Armee at the Invalides, where he was entombed after the remains at St Helena were brought back home by Emperor Louis-Philippe in 1840).

The most famous landmark framed by the French balcony of the tiny room of our regular Parisian hotel is the ubiquitous Eiffel Tower, not a memento of the city’s greatest soldier, even though his sarcophagus lies across the street. Les Invalides only counts today as one of the capital's many minor monuments. Nor are any of the 22 bridges across the Seine named after him.

Yet, the city is dotted with symbols of his powerful presence. The Arc de Triomphe, the Rue de Rivoli, the Madeleine church-these are all important elements of his grand vision of Paris. The reincarnation of the Louvre as Musee Napoleon after an initial conversion from palace to museum happened in 1801.

Some pictorial reminders of the Emperor’s life, a portrait or two and pieces of sculpture are still displayed here. But, most paintings of major battles and victories, records of significant events like the crossing of the Alps and the famous formal individual and family portraits, with which we are all familiar are housed in the Coronation room adjoining the royal apartments among the fountains, parks and relics of other Empires at the Palace of Versailles.

The average Frenchman (and woman) is devoted to the memory of Napoleon, but (s)he will also relay the best jokes about his stature, his failures and the debacle at Moscow. Monarchic exploits do not sit well with a people suffused with revolutionary energy. No wonder that the pillar erected at Place Vendome to commemorate the victories of the “Grande Armee” in 1810 was vandalised and removed during the uprising of the First Commune in 1871 and only declared a national monument quite recently.

References to Napoleon recur frequently during visits to European capitals. He belongs to the line of continental leaders who dreamed of a vast united Europe. Abiding connections between France and other nations were sealed through conquest as well as diplomatic marriage alliances. Napoleon’s siblings and scions carried the blood of this lowly family to palaces in Holland, Spain and many Italian principalities, when he elevated them (alongside his favourite generals) as monarchs of conquered kingdoms.

Throughout the 19th Century, France itself was intermittently governed by persons who claimed kinship with him and adopted his name. Memories of Napoleon are also evoked in Vienna, the home of his second wife Marie-Louise-there is even a Napoleon Room in the great Schonbrun palace. And, it was Napoleon’s ghost that rose up before me in Tolstoy’s study in Yasnaya Polyana, where War and Peace was written.

There were forays to the African continent, when Napoleon’s soldiers stormed into Egypt. One heard of him on visits to Malta, Alexandria and Cairo. He is famously supposed to have reminded his troops that “forty centuries of history” (enshrined in the Great Pyramids) looked down on their battle. No tourist today can also escape hearing about Napoleon's men damaging the nose of the Sphinx during target practice.

But, the General’s agents were not cavalier with exotic artefacts. They shipped them home as monuments and museum pieces, kindling an abiding interest in hieroglyphics and sarcophagi. The French were, however, cheated of the honour of housing the Rosetta stone which broke the code of Egyptian hieroglyphics and the iconic Book of the Dead by a greater marauder nation-Britain.

As for us Indians, the Napoleonic wars were mirrored in Tipu’s battles and a futile French attempt to land at Calcutta. The triumph of Britain sealed the colonial fate of India and we heard nothing more about the Emperor.

Napoleon’s life and personality are the very stuff of romance. If he soared to the summit of success, he also plumbed the depths of despair. The confusions of the First Republic took him rapidly from corporal to consul and just as swiftly to emperor. His personal life is equally intriguing.

The youthful novel he authored based on his wooing of Desiree. His wedding to the widow Josephine, mother of two children and her elevation as Empress. The entry of the upstart into the most exclusive European royal dynasty through marriage to the Austrian Marie-Louise of the Habsburg line, which claimed descent from the ‘Holy’ Roman Empire.

The inexorable march of French militarism could only be halted by taking Napoleon away from his loyal subjects. Elba, the island to which he was banished, proved too close for the comfort of his enemies.

His tumultuous return to jubilant French crowds lasted only a 100 days. St. Helena, his final home in exile, isolated him from his land and his people. He languished here for six more years and was (it is widely believed) poisoned to death.

But, penning up this martial spirit could not arrest the flow of his ideas. His influence seeped through France, Europe and many countries in Asia and Africa, particularly in areas colonised or occupied by France.

Several institutions of modern governance became rooted in France during the Napoleonic years. The Code Napoleon is a simple, elegant piece of legalese, which laid the foundations of modern judicial thinking in many European nations that emerged from the wreckage of old kingdoms as well as in their colonies in other continents.

Centralising administration by creating “departments” controlled by prefects is a contribution of Napoleon. Road and sewage systems were laid out. And, “grandes ecoles”, the typically French educational institutes, were opened.

A perceptive, balanced and thought provoking exploration of the life and impact of the man is clearly overdue. A film buff like me should be queuing up eagerly at the cinema around the corner to watch the biopic of my favourite hero.

But, I am oddly reluctant to view the movie. What would happen to my impressions and attitudes about Napoleon when I go to the theatre? I will look upon a sea of tricorne hats. A puny figure in a characteristic pose, legs apart and right arm tucked into a half open waistcoat. Rearing horses and blazing muskets.

Red, gold and ermine costumes, opulent palaces, the snows of Moscow. And the bitter taste of failure as the Grande Armee falters and flees and its general is hustled away to lonely islands.

Even the prospect of Joaquin Phoenix acting under Ridley Scott’s direction cannot tempt me to watch Napoleon. I must cling to my own hoard of sound and light vignettes about this controversial figure and prepare itineraries to visit Elba and St. Helena.

The last word about Napoleon has not yet been said. No play has captured the destiny of this tragic figure as Shakespeare’s tragedies have done for many English kings. I will wait till it appears.