Tuesday, 13 August 2013

I met a bloke called ‘the Doctor’ yesterday and he offered me a ride in something called TARDIS. It looked like an old police box to me, but next thing I knew I found myself in Guernsey, 150 years ago in 1863. The first thing I saw was a newspaper headline extolling the virtues of a novel called ‘Les Misérables’ – the first part had been published the previous year, and now the whole novel was available.

 What a fantastic opportunity! I asked the good doctor to brew himself a cup of tea, while I sought an interview with Victor Hugo. Like most authors, he was more than happy to talk about his novel, and with the translating capabilities of the TARDIS, language wasn’t a problem.

First of all, Mr Hugo, may I say how much I enjoyed ‘Les Misérables’. It has been a real inspiration to me.

 Thank you, my dear.

 I understand that you are great campaigner for social justice?

 Indeed yes – that’s how I ended up living here in Guernsey. I was too outspoken for the French government in those days. Of course I could return to France now, but I still wouldn’t be permitted to speak my mind. So I remain here, and I use my pen to fight injustice.

 Is the novel ‘Les Misérables’ a part of that fight?

 Very much so. I have heard some of you English translate the title as ‘miserable’, but it means much more than that. It means the oppressed, the down-trodden, the outcasts from society. Individuals such as Fantine, forced into prostitution and eventual death because of a youthful mistake; Eponine, trapped into a life of crime and poverty. And of course Jean Valjean, condemned to prison for 19 years for stealing a loaf of bread, then to a life on the run for breaking parole.

 Can you explain about the parole system in France at that time?

 With pleasure. When a criminal had served his time, he was released – but only on parole. He was given a ‘ticket of leave’ which he had to carry with him, and show to everyone with whom he had dealings. For example, if he wanted to find work. He was also restricted as to where he was allowed to go. If he failed to show the ticket, or if he strayed from his designated route, he would be deemed in breach of parole, and locked up again. It was therefore very difficult for a former convict to find honest work.

 Mr Hugo, I’d like to discuss the two main characters in your novel, Jean Valjean and Javert. First of all, Let’s stay with Valjean. I believe his initial sentence for the theft of bread was five years, not nineteen years?

 You are quite correct, and I am certainly not claiming that he was an honest and upstanding citizen at that time. He was a woodsman who wasn’t beyond doing a spot of poaching. He stole the bread because his sister and her children were hungry, but they weren’t starving. You might say that he deserved some punishment, but five years hard labour was excessive. Albeit very typical.

 Had Valjean behaved well in prison he could have been out in five years, but he was a hot-headed young man, several escape attempts meant that his sentence was increased. So yes, he was in part responsible for having to serve nineteen years.

 Upon his release, I believe he continued to steal?

 Yes, he did. You must understand that he was very bitter and desperate. He stole from the Bishop out of desperation and the little child out of habit and bitterness. But then it really hit him, what he had done.

Would you say he had a ‘Road to Damascus’ experience?

Indeed yes. The forgiveness and goodness of the Bishop of Digne really went into his heart. He was a changed man from that day, determined to live a good life. But that was impossible whilst his parole ticket branded him as a thief – as one of Les Misérables. Hence his decision to destroy the parole ticket, and start a new life, under a new identity.

Would you say he succeeded?

 Yes. It wasn’t easy for him. He still had to struggle with aspects of his personality, with anger and sometimes bitterness. But he was further helped by his experience with Fantine. You might say there were three people who helped Valjean with his reformation. The Bishop was paramount, but being able to help Fantine, and having the responsibility of raising Cosette – and her love as a daughter – were also important for him.