When I saw that Victor Hugo's first novel written in 1818 was Bug-Jargal, I did not know it would be on my list of favorites. That being said I thought Victor Hugo was far ahead of his time in regards to showing man to be cruel, deceitful and evil but also honorable, kind, having camaraderie, good and lenient on both sides.
One thing: sometimes, during the reading, I couldn't tell whether Hugo was defending freedom and human rights (some of main Hugo's favorite themes), or he was on the side of the french masters.
L'histoire se passe dans la colonie française de Saint-Domingue (actuelle Haïti), à la fin du 18ème siècle, durant le soulèvement des esclaves noirs contre les colons européens. C'est une histoire d'amitié, sur fond d'insurrection, entre le capitaine Léopold d'Auverney et Pierrot (qui deviendra Bug-Jargal), un esclave fils d'un roi africain, une amitié qui sélève au-dessus des différences raciales et sociales. Dans ce roman, l'auteur pointe du doigt lexploitation des esclaves, les maltraitances et autres humiliations que leur infligent les impitoyables colons ce qui m'a fait penser, à un moment, que Victor Hugo était antiesclavagiste.
Hugo bases the story on the Haitian slave uprising in the late 18th century. Hugo knits the entire story in the first-person narrative style which, in my opinion, adds a certain level of fallibility but humanity to it. I shutter to hear some readers chastise this work as inexcusably racist when the white Captain, a product of French imperialism and racial injustice, tells the story! Hugo readily condemns nearly every suppressive weapon employed by those in power by mirroring their uses by blacks on whites. For D'Auverney and Pierrot, two individuals guided by virtue rather than vengeance, love for humanity rather than brother, the end proved bitter in a bloated and selfish worldly system without space for their substance. My drug paraphernalia reads, 'Who can tell if the bullets of the enemy nay not have spared his head for his country's guillotine?' If a man fights an enemy to take their power, he will likely enjoy the praise of those he leads. Where both white and black stood enslaved to the guttural urge to take the other eye, to shift power from one to the other only to perpetrate the same lingering evil, two men willfully succumbed to the graces of virtue, the abandonment of that evil, and the best of enlightened man.
At one point in the novel, reflecting upon the bloody massacres occurring in the revolution, Bug-jagal remarks to the fierce rebel leader Biassou: Do not let us be less merciful than they are. The rebel blacks set fire to the cane fields, forests, and estates; which was the only way of permanently discouraging the more technologically advanced French planters. Hugo has his character, the rebellious leader Biassou, remark as follows in reference to such pillage: no mercy for the planters; let us massacre their families and destroy their plantations! In fact, Hugo brilliantly uses the destruction of the trees to symbolize and highlight the life struggle occurring in Haiti. Like the blacks, the trees represent the struggle of life in a world that is attempting growth in the face of destruction. The modern day practice of Vodou in Haiti today bears many remnants of the French Catholicism that the Haitian slaves never quite understood, but attempted to mimic nonetheless. The scene in which a hypocrite white philanthropist and the planter of doubtful origin are brought before the fierce rebel leader Biassou to be judged is the most revealing part of the entire novel. Hugo displays, in Biassou, the same sort of diabolical arrogance that would possess most future Haitian leaders and paralyze black Haitian governments, even into modernity. When the white man of doubtful origin comes to be judged by Biassou, he suddenly exclaims that he is part black, a fact that he has heretofore denied his entire life. In this character, Hugo displays the hypocrisy of the mulattoes, who would set themselves over the blacks and pretend to be fully white.
The story takes the form of a flashback where the general is urged by his comrades to narrate the events of his life that both shaped him as an individual and have left scars which will always remind him of how Bug Jargul, his true friend and brother sacrificed his life for his friends and fellow human beings.
There's Bug-Jargal, described as the pure "noble savage" who also happens to be a hunky dude, and then there's the only love interest, Maria, who's also pure and virginal but basically some wacky metaphor of the virgin Mary???