Tuesday, January 10, 2023

Victor Hugo - Les Miserables

Victor Hugo's tale of injustice, heroism and love follows the fortunes of Jean Valjean, an escaped convict determined to put his criminal past behind him. But his attempts to become a respected member of the community are constantly put under threat: by his own conscience, when, owing to a case of mistaken identity, another man is arrested in his place; and by the relentless investigations of the dogged Inspector Javert. It is not simply for himself that Valjean must stay free, however, for he has sworn to protect the baby daughter of Fantine, driven to prostitution by poverty.

Comment: This is a classic I've wanted to read for a long time. But I didn't have the book and my local library only had an edition divided into several smaller volumes. I've decided to invest in the most recent Portuguese edition, divided into two volumes, because despite the price, it is still more convenient to me to read classics in my mother tongue. I feel the translation of this one was a masterful work and I'm glad I've chosen to go with it as my first read of 2023.

I believe there is no need to summarize the plot, but nevertheless here it is the premise: It's the 19th century and Jean Valjean is a poor, hungry man who has pity on his sister's children too and one time he steals a bread. He is caught and sent to jail but when he is finally released no one wants to help him until he meets a true good man, a priest who trust in him. Valjean turns his life around and decides to help others, until one police officer decides it's his life mission to expose Valjean's past to everyone. At the same time, Fantine, who works in one of Valjean's factories to help pay her daughters' stay with a deceiving couple, is dismissed and her only solution is to become a prostitute. When Valjean discovers this, he decides to do the right thing and help the child, Cosette. However, his past and his conscience are always in the way, as well as the unfairness of a system and the prejudice of others... will Valjean be able to accomplish what he promised to Fantine?

Often, classic texts are seen by our contemporary standards and style as being boring or outdated or just not appealing at all. Any writer can be caught in these descriptions and I've read a few classics which felt like too much of a task or a duty because of the heavy text or the boring writing or even the unappealing plots. I expected this book to have a little of everything but I decided to not investigate the story (I have not yet seen any of the movies based on it either) so that my experience would not be swayed.

Portuguese Edition
Volume I
I'm very glad I did this and that I tried the book in the professional translation I picked. The story simply flowed for me and I saw myself eager to turn the pages and to see what the characters would do next. It's pretty much a classic, not only because of when it was written and all that it contains because of the cultural and historical setting the author wrote about, but also because it's one of those "larger than life" texts, the quest/ path of a character (Valjean) through redemption and forgiveness, especially by his own standards and attitudes.

I was truly invested in this book, even at an emotional level. Some passages, although I can't repeat or memorize them, evoked in me a lot of feelings and thoughts. Jean Valjean is a true hero: imperfect, making mistakes, doing bad things, making wrong choices but his character and his heart flawless. Just like any good person but who makes human mistakes. An example: close to the end of the story he has this monologue explaining to another character why he isn't worthy of the good opinion Cosette has of him and it was one of the most emotional and heartbreaking passages I've read in a book! I couldn't help crying because his self esteem was never something he considered, not once but he still did his best and I just couldn't help not feeling sad for him.

Portuguese Edition
Volume II
For me, the book worked out wonderfully. I know it wasn't so for everyone who has read it and perhaps the way the book is told might have something to do with it, but the author captivated me completely. The book is divided into five parts and each part into chapters. As it's a given when it comes to 19th century works and/or style, there is plenty of text where the author introduces ideas or just goes away from the story to provide context and this can certainly annoy many people, as it becomes distracting and boring, but I actually liked all the historical and social commentary.

Each part is focused on one character (or what they are suppose to represent) and although one could say the characters are a bit too conventional - they are meant to personify an idea/value which means they don't really have more to them than the basics and simple interactions - I was still rooting for the ones who had unfairness happening to them and hated the ones who hurt others on purpose. The author obviously had an agenda writing this, mostly regarding society, but I think that for me, the fictional part was as interesting as everything else.

There are many reviewers and readers out there who did a much better job in explaining why this is deserving of the classic status and why it still captivates readers so long after the historical events used to develop the plot took place. The root of this story and the characters still touches us nowadays, still tells us about a message and a concept, we still wish to see the "good ones" win the day or be seen as heroes. This was really a fascinating read for me, for certain.
Grade: 9/10

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