Revamping a book: Victor Hugo’s last novel influenced several revolutionaries
Bhagat Singh was a voracious reader of books ranging from political economy to literature. Although Victor Hugo was a world famous classic writer of the 19th century, he is best known for his novel Wretched.
Hugo, who lived a rich and tumultuous life of 83 years, is considered one of the most respected writers not only in France but in all of Europe. The 19th century was an era of Enlightenment in Europe after the French Revolution, giving rise to the slogan “Egalité, Fraternité et Liberté”, which later became part of the French Constitution.
Singh also had read Wretched and also discussed Hugo’s novel Ninety-three with fellow revolutionary Sukhdev. With the novel by Leonid Andreyev Seven who were hangedtheir personalities as revolutionaries were shaped to some extent on the lives of revolutionaries in these two novels in France and Russia – at least these novels had left a deep impression on them.
For France, Hugo as a writer was one of the greatest. France gives more respect to its writers than to its political leaders. As one of France’s most powerful presidents, Charles de Gaulle, said of Jean-Paul Sartre: “Sartre is France and I can’t stop France”. Sartre had come on the road to support the rebellious students of France in 1968.
Hugo wrote a lot in terms of quantity but is known for the quality of his works. Apart from the 10 fiction books, he has written more than 50 books, which include poetry, plays, prose, and political writings. His other famous novel is The Hunchback of Notre Dame. He is considered the first writer of the romantic movement in literature.
Ninety-three was his last work published in 1874 when he was 72 years old. He died at the age of 83 in 1885. Hugo was also active in the political and revolutionary activities of France. He had become a member of the prestigious French Academy of Letters of France in 1841 and entered the Upper House of Parliament in 1845 on the proposal of the king. Later, he was elected to the National Assembly of the Second Republic as well as to the Lower House in 1848 as a conservative. He broke with the Conservatives in 1849 and became a supporter of the abolition of the death penalty.
Hugo also spoke out in favor of ending the misery of the poor and also supported universal suffrage. He was also in favor of free education for children. In 1851, when Napoleon III took power, Hugo went into exile in 1855 and returned to France in 1870 after his dismissal.
Although, like Charles Dickens in England, Hugo also initially supported French colonialism of Africa as a “civilizing mission”, he later became a strong supporter of the abolition of slavery in the Caribbean and the decolonization of Africa. He said in 1862: “A single slave on earth is enough to dishonor the freedom of all men. Thus, the abolition of slavery is, at this time, the supreme goal of thinkers.
During the Paris Commune in France from March 18 to May 27, 1871, while in Brussels, Hugo criticized the atrocities committed “on both sides”. He freed himself from the impact of religion and declared himself a free thinker in line with Voltaire, a progressive trend at the time. His rationalism offended some people and he had to deal with slogans like “Burn Hugo”. Despite his many contradictions, he had become a hero for France by 1870. He was mourned as a national hero when he died. Several roads and districts are in many cities of France bear his name.
The interesting part of Ninety-three (Ninety-three) is that on the one hand, “reds” like Joseph Stalin and Singh had read and appreciated it, on the other, “whites” like the iconic novelist of individualism Ayan Rand admired it too and even wrote an introduction to one of his English translations.
The plot is based on the French Revolution but was published three years after the Paris Commune. It is a long novel of almost 350 pages with a not very simple narration or story.
Ninety-three concerns the Revolt in Vendée and the Chouannerie – the counter-revolutionary revolts of 1793. Divided into three parts but not chronologically connected, each tells a different story. The action takes place mainly in Brittany and Paris. The civil war in France had started in November 1792 and the murders committed were extremely bloody.
The soldiers of the French Republic (the Blues) meet Michelle Fléchard, a peasant woman, and her three young children fleeing the conflict in the bocage. When she mentions that her husband and parents were killed in the peasant revolt, the commander, Sergeant Radoub, convinces his troops to deal with the family.
Meanwhile, a group of royalist “whites” plans to land at sea the Marquis de Lantenac, a Breton aristocrat whose leadership could transform the rebellion. Suddenly, a sailor fails to secure his cannon and it spirals out of control and damages the ship. But the sailor risks his life to secure the cannon and save their ship. Although Lantenac awards the sailor a medal for his bravery but executes him without trial for failing in his duty. When their damaged corvette is spotted by Republic ships, Lantenac slips away in a boat with a follower named Halmalo. The corvette distracts the Republican ships by causing a battle that the damaged ship cannot win.
Lantenac is chased by the Blues but is protected by a local beggar to whom he once gave alms. He meets his supporters and they immediately launch an attack against the Blues. Part of the troops as well as the family are captured. Lantenac orders them to be shot, including Fléchard, and takes his children with him as hostages. The beggar finds the bodies, discovers that Fléchard is still alive and heals her.
With Lantenac’s ruthless methods turning the revolt into a major threat to the Republic, leading figures of the Revolution Georges Jacques Danton, Maximilien François Marie Isidore de Robespierre and Jean-Paul Marat issue a decree that all rebels and anyone will help will be executed.
Cimourdain, who is a committed revolutionary, is responsible for enforcing order in Brittany and watching over Gawain, the commander of the Republican troops who is deemed too lenient towards the rebels there because of his relationship with Lantenac. Revolutionary leaders are unaware that Cimourdain was Gawain’s childhood tutor and consider him a son.
Meanwhile, Fléchard learns that his children are being held hostage at the Château de Lantenac. While fighting the besiegers at the castle, Sergeant Radoub spots the children. After persuading Gawain to let him lead the assault, he manages to break through the defenses and kill several rebels. However, Lantenac and a few survivors escape through a secret passage after setting the building on fire with Halmalo’s help. But Lantenac returns to rescue the trapped children after hearing Fléchard’s hysterical cries. Consumed by guilt, Lantenac surrenders.
Knowing that Lantenac will be executed by a tribunal composed of Cimourdain, Radoub and Gauvain Guéchamp’s deputy, Gauvain visits him in prison. When Lantenac expresses his uncompromisingly conservative vision of a society ordered by hierarchy, deference and duty, Gauvain insists that human values are more important. To prove himself, he let Lantenac escape and then surrendered to court.
Subsequently, Gawain is tried for treason. Radoub acquits Gauvain given his flawless revolutionary record but Cimourdain and Guéchamp condemn him. Later that night, Cimourdain goes to meet Gauvain before his execution the next morning. Gauvain describes his own vision of a future society with minimal government, no taxes, technological progress and gender equality.
The next morning, while Gauvain is being guillotined, a shot is heard. Cimourdain shoots himself with his pistol. The novel ends there.
Stalin, who had read the novel during his seminar in Georgia, was deeply marked by the character of Cimourdain. During their discussion of the novel, Sukhdev had no sympathy for Cimourdain as he was against the very idea of suicide as a revolutionary. However, after being arrested and imprisoned, Sukhdev himself thought about suicide instead of spending his life behind bars. Sukhdev could not sustain a long hunger strike unlike Singh, BK Dutt and many other comrades.
The two letters exchanged between Singh and Sukhdev, one outside prison and the second inside, shed light on the philosophical attitude towards the concepts of love and suicide. Singh was quite harsh in his criticism of Sukhdev over the idea of killing himself. Singh argued that revolutionaries should remain prepared for prolonged suffering inside and outside of prison without ever thinking about suicide. Although he understood, like Stalin, the dilemma of Cimourdain, who could fulfill his duty as a revolutionary to have his “son” condemned and guillotined, but then, out of paternal emotions, he committed suicide.
The novel influenced many Indian revolutionaries, who were fond of literature like their counterparts in other countries. Although little discussed as a literary classic, Ninety-three stands out among its worldwide readership. This keeps the sociopolitical relevance of the novel alive even nearly 150 years after its publication.
The novel was digitized as part of Project Gutenberg and is freely available on the Internet Archive.
The author is a retired JNU Professor and an Honorary Advisor to the Bhagat Singh Archives and Resource Centre, Delhi.