As I write from this little flat in Paris, the sounds of intermittent police or ambulance sirens break into the usual flow of general outside traffic and it’s hard to quell that instant “what if?” thought. It’s a normal morning, the 17 year old is all being well ‘safe as houses’ in school, the city is gritting its teeth and determined to get back its habitual glow and Gallic grumpiness, and the only way to go in the face of the recent atrocities is to mourn with the grieving but shrug off melodrama and fear…and just get on with it.
Our daily lives and professions have been impacted, you might even call it a direct hit, by the wave of uncertainty streaking along and taking no prisoners since last week – people coming on holiday to the ‘City of Light’ have hesitated about getting on flights now or over Christmas or just in general and many have cancelled their trips; restaurants have seen their bums on seats literally plummet to the floor as their diners choose to stay indoors and cancellations there have been rife too. It’s going to take a while for the dust to settle and is hard not to imagine further repercussions along the way.
Everyone is still reeling from listening to the powerful testimonies of people like Antoine Leiris, showing a photo of a beautiful young woman, his wife, holding her 17-month old baby, who just went for a Friday night out and came home riddled with bullets. Unimaginable and unthinkable and unbearably tragic. His message of “vous n’aurez pas ma haine” encapsulates what is the very best of human nature alongside the very worst. Paris is just one city among so many hoping for more peaceful times ahead.
It struck me that as Paris is a target for what it represents in terms of culture, with its art and cinema and great, great literature, maybe things have not changed so very much since Victor Hugo’s day. It was honestly like pulling teeth to read every page of the three tomes of “Les Misérables” a few years back, and was even more painful and painstaking to dredge through page after page of impossibly difficult vocabulary together, when my then 13 year old boy had to read “The Hunchback of Notre-Dame” in French one summer about five years back – but oh my, that man had human beings down to a tee. The good, the bad and the ugly. And every shade of grey in between. Cliché-ridden, I realise.
The one thing that really distinguishes a good read from a great novel, I think, is the memory it leaves over time. It was a labour of love to get to page 1785, but Éponine, Fantine and Gavroche are all imprinted on my brain forever.
The strife Hugo wrote about described the unjust class-based structure of the times, where people lived with the perpetual uncertainty that political events imposed upon their daily life. At that unforgettable battle at the barricade many of the innocent and the insurgents were slaughtered without really achieving their aim – it was all very heroic but in the end sadly mostly futile – and as a result of it both Éponine and Gavroche lost their lives and broke our hearts. Many things have changed since then, but some of the parallel tracks remain.
Old Victor had the gift of the gab when it came to putting the words on the page and rendering them immortal, and his main theme that shines throughout is that love and compassion are (and I quote Sparknotes) “the most important gifts one person can give another and always displaying these qualities should be the most important goal in life”.
You could of course quote the scribe himself till the cows come home, so here’s one to put in the proverbial pipe : “Les grands périls ont cela de beau; qu’ils mettent en lumière la fraternité des inconnus”. Onward and upward. Here’s to Paris getting back up on those shaky pins and shaking its booty.