Saturday, July 28, 2012

Book #6: Les Miserables

It wasn't until I finished my abridged version of Les Miserables last year that I realized it didn't mention many of the events I heard as being in the novel, and that therefore I actually hadn't finished the book. I had only finished the first two volumes out of five. So, I went back and bought an unabridged version of the novel, which took several months to read, a time during which it doubled as a pillow during hikes and trips to the beach.

Reading the last three volumes made the novel more meaningful, though I think the first two volumes were better-written. The novel is vast in its scope and its themes. After finishing it, I read the introduction (why read a detailed analysis of a book I've never even read?) and was heartened to see the translator mention that much of the book was superfluous and completely irrelevant to the novel, amounting to so much well-written prose. Victor Hugo's painstakingly detailed account of the Battle of Waterloo is perhaps the best example, as I spent about two hours reading the 50-page retelling while searching in vain for any clue to see how it related to the novel.

As with the Hunchback of Notre Dame, my favourite thing about reading this novel was that it was set in Paris, an old, grimy city. A close second, though, was the interweaving of contemporary French history with the plot. The fourth volume describes the republican June Rebellion of 1832, and I read the scene where the French national guard moved in on the waiting republicans in the last few days, at roughly the same time that Syrian rebels in Aleppo braced for an assault on the city from the Syrian army.

For French republicans the 1832 rebellion was one fight out of many over a period lasting nearly a century, before the monarchy and its various restorations were finally abolished, finally fulfilling the goal of the French Revolution. Though I'm pessimistic about the future growth of democracy as the American and Western share of influence in the world wanes, there has been reason for optimism in the two years since Andrew Sullivan and I wrote our respective posts. Dictatorships have tumbled in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen and Myanmar, counted as some of the worst dictatorships in the world, with Syria, another such peer, looking more and more likely to join the list.

Closer to where I write this, North Korea and China, stronger dictatorships than any that have fallen so far if not the strongest dictatorships ever, are as strong as ever. There is no chance that China will become a democracy any time soon, and I would be shocked if it happened even in my lifetime. Nevertheless, China's prosperity is allowing its citizens the luxury to demand things like clean air and the freedom to not die in train accidents. This is unlikely to produce democracy or meaningful elections, but it just might make China an increasingly responsive dictatorship, similar to Hong Kong or Singapore.

As for North Korea, I'm unconvinced that it will even cease to exist as a state any time soon, much less become a democracy. While we get excited about even the prospect of insignificant reforms in North Korea, like letting women wear pants, we often term these reforms as being Chinese in nature, which is a good indication of what the best-case scenario is for North Korea, following China's trajectory about thirty years after it happened. If Kim Jong-eun is going to put the economy ahead of the military and some degree of ideology, 2012 will still be to North Korea what 1979 was to China, extending the life of the dictatorship rather than bringing about its end.

1 comment:

gildas said...

Damned !!
I'm french, "Les Misérables" is my favourite book, I lived for 5 years in Brussels (passing by Waterloo/Genappe everyday), I NEVER give up a book even when it's boring.....and I must say that I "jumped" those 100 pages describing the Battle of Waterloo....too much.....definitely WITHOUT any link with the novel and so F%#*§% boring......congratulation that you could make it !
I couldn't make it either with "Hunchback of Notre Dame"....describing the roof of Paris for 200p is also too much....

You should read "The Last Day of a Condemned Man"...the best of Hugo without any long unrelated descriptions !