“Ninety-Three” reminds me of “Iliad” and “The Trial and Death of Socrates“. There’re memorable adventures and battles at sea, a ferocious siege that leads to a battle to the death, and finally, in the face of death, a contemplation of meaning, duty, freedom and destiny. Echoes of these contemplations are found in Tolstoy’s “War and Peace”, especially the Epilogue.
If you’ve read “Les Misérables”, you would notice the year 93 mentioned throughout (although in the background). It was the year of Terror during the French Revolution, when “many times freshly severed heads, borne aloft on the tops of pikes, sprinkled their blood-drops” over the table of the Assembly. It’s also the central point of a debate between the bishop and the conventionist: Is bloodshed inevitable in social progress?
Reading this book is like being transported in a time machine to 18th century France during the French Revolution. First on board a battleship in the midst of a raging sea, watching a bizarre yet deadly battle between the sailors and an inanimate but powerful enemy; then to Paris,and the Assembly hall of the Convention, the Olympus, witnessing the intense struggles among powerful personalities, Danton, Robespierre and Marat, the leaders of the Revolution, where orders are issued on which lives of thousands are decided; and finally, to the final battleground, where heroes are destroyed but also born, where battles of the tongue are no less fierce than those of the cannon, but more comic.
How the Heroes are Born
When I read Iliad, I couldn’t help but felt depressed by a sense of fatality. Why did the Greeks and the Trojans have to kill or be killed? Both sides wanted peace and attempted a truce, but the gods intervened and the heroes fought to the death. Despite the best efforts of all reasonable and intelligent people, World War II broke out, no less inexorably than the Trojan War. Why all the senseless deaths?
Hugo contemplated these questions in the wake of the French Revolution, and in this book, he re-wrote the ending of Iliad, so to speak. There’re a few unexpected twists created by free choice of will. It’s no less tragic and heroic, but there’re also freedom, joy and hope. Despite the apparent inevitability of events, each hero/person has to make his own choice according to his conscience, and in doing so he attains to freedom, dignity and mastery of his destiny.
Nature is pitiless; she never withdraws her flowers, her music, her fragrance and her sunlight, from before human cruelty or suffering. She overwhelms man by the contrast between divine beauty and social hideousness. She spares him nothing of her loveliness, neither wing or butterfly, nor song of bird; in the midst of murder, vengeance, barbarism, he must feel himself watched by holy things; he cannot escape the immense reproach of universal nature and the implacable serenity of the sky. The deformity of human laws is forced to exhibit itself naked amidst the dazzling rays of eternal beauty. Man breaks and destroys; man lays waste; man kills; but the summer remains summer; the lily remains the lily; and the star remains the star.
As though it said to man, ‘Behold my work. and yours.’
The Nobleman and His Nephew
Once on a time there was a king and a queen; the king was the king; the queen was France. They cut the king’s head off, and married the queen to Robespierre; this gentleman and that lady have a daughter named Guillotine, with whom it appears that I am to make acquaintance tomorrow morning. I shall be delighted — as I am to see you.
Perhaps, viscount, you no longer know what a nobleman is. Well, you see one — it is I. Look at the specimen. It is an odd race; it believes in God, it believes in tradition, it believes in family, it believes in its ancestors, it believes in the example of its father, in fidelity, loyalty, duty toward its prince, respect to ancient laws, virtue, justice — and it would shoot you with pleasure…
You have noble blood in your veins; yes, by Heaven, the same that runs in mine; yet the blood that made me a man of honor makes you a rascal. Such are personal idiosyncrasies….I admire a youth like you, who, a man of quality, well placed in the State, having noble blood to shed in a noble cause,… amuses himself, being what he is, to be what you are; playing his part so well that he produces upon his enemies the effect of a villain, and, on his friends, of an idiot.