Friday 6 April 2018

Les Misérables The Ship Orion/Le Vaisseau Orion V2/B2

The Ship Orion is only a short book, a mere three chapters, but it marked quite a special event- we are now a quarter of the way through the #LesMisReadalong. It's gone quite quickly really in some ways. It's been a great journey, and I'm so glad to be part of such a wonderful online community. 

The Ship Orion comes as quite a break after the history lesson of Waterloo. We delve straight back into the story in a rather dramatic fashion.

Jean Valjean had been recaptured. 

And Victor Hugo uses some different technique with the inclusion of two newspaper reports regarding the scandal of a small town mayor actually being an ex-convict in breach of parole. He is known to have withdrawn a large sum of money from his bank. 

Suddenly near Montfermeil we have a man, Boulatruelle, another ex-convict, a road-mender and drunkard who leaves his work to go and dig up the forest scaring old ladies. Thenadier sets out to find out what he is up to. 'Let's put him to the wine test,'...

They did their utmost to get the old road-mender drunk. Boulatruelle drank an enormous amount and said very little. He combined with admirable skill and in masterly proportion a guzzler's thirst with the discretion of a judge. 
We soon have another digression into war, much shorter than that of Waterloo. I presume that Hugo's contemporary readers would have known of the war of 1823- I had to resort to the Notes and to Google. 
In 1823 France intervened on the side of the royalists in the Spanish Civil War (1820-3), with the result that liberal gains were reversed and Ferdinand VII was restored to the throne as absolute monarch. 
Naturally Victor Hugo has some opinions on this. 
The war of 1823, an outrage against the brave Spanish people, was at the same time, therefore, an outrage against the French Revolution. 
And there are more magnificent quotes. 
An army is a strangely contrived masterpiece by which force results from an enormous amount of powerlessness. This is the explanation of war, waged by humanity against humanity despite humanity. 
And the gorgeous prose I've come to expect. 
A ship of the line combines the heaviest and lightest of components because it operates at one and the same time with the three forms of matter, solid, liquid and gas, and must contend with all three. It has eleven iron claws to grab the granite sea-bed, and to catch the wind in the clouds it has more wings and feelers than any flying insect. Its breath is expelled from its one hundred and twenty cannons as from enormous bugles, and proudly answers thunder. The ocean tries to lead it astray in the frightening sameness of its waves, but the vessel has a soul, its compass, that guides it and always indicates north. On dark nights its lanterns act as substitutes for the stars. So against the wind, it has rope and canvas; against water, timber; against rock, iron, brass and lead; against darkness, light; against immensity, a needle. 
Even while describing the Mediterranean fleet Victor Hugo's social conscience is never far away. He tallies up the wasted cannonballs used by the military every day. Two hundred years later we are still having essentially the same discussions on military spending. 
It has been calculated that in salvoes, royal and military honours, exchanges of courtesy volleys, ceremonial signals, harbour and citadel formalities, sunrise and sunset salutes every day by all forts and all ships of war, port openings and closings et cetera, the civilised world was discharging around the globe every twenty-four hours one hundred and fifty thousand unnecessary cannon shots. At six francs per cannon shot, that comes to nine hundred thousand francs a day, three hundred million a year, that go up in smoke. This is just one small detail. Meanwhile the poor are dying of hunger. 
At the end of this book Jean Valjean performs another heroic rescue and saves the life of sailor caught in the rigging of the ship. 
At a nod from the officer, with one blow of a hammer he had broken the chain riveted to the shackle round his ankle, then grabbed a rope, and leapt up into the shrouds. No one noticed at the time how easily that chain was broken. It was only later that people remembered. 
Clearly Jean Valjean had been biding his time, waiting for his chance, and we can now reflect on the chapter title- The Ankle-Chain Must Have Been Worked on Previously, to Break at a Single Hammer Blow.

After his daring rescue in the rigging of the ship Jean Val Jean "seemed to falter and teeter" and falls into the sea. 
He had vanished into the sea without causing a ripple, as though he had fallen into a vat of oil. They searched, they dived. It was to no avail. The search continued until nightfall. They did not even find the body. 

All quotes are from the 2013 Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition, translated by Christine Donougher. 

1 comment:

Brona said...

It was certainly a dramatic few chapters!