Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Hugo’s Bug-Jargal (1826)

Hugo’s first novel, Bug-Jargal, is striking, set in the Haitian slave evolution, It is very dismissive of both sides, The cruelty, greed, and entitlement of the white masters are not soft-pedaled; the black leaders of the slave revolt are shown as treacherous, foolish, and despotic. Both “civilization” and its opposite are portrayed as deeply evil.

Amidst all this is a strange central story of courtly honor. The white hero Leopold D'Auverney, nephew of a slaveholder, and the black hero, the one-time African prince Bug-Jargal, a rebel slave, begin as rivals for Leopold’s (very white) cousin. In the end, they mange to save each other’s lives several times each. In a sea of rascals, they both have the same sense of courtly obligation and grow to admire each other. In the end, Bug-Jargal is killed when he comes to turn himself in to the white army, under the ineffective protection of Leopold,

The description of Haiti is second-hand, though based on factual narratives. But we never get a real sense of place (no heat, no bugs, few details). The chivalric romance seems out of place with the more realistic flogging of slaves and torturing of white prisoners. The nominal heroine is offstage most of the time, survives the custody of the respectful Bug-Jargal with virtue intact, and serves more as a token of the connection of the two men rather than as a real person.

The story is a narrative framed by the familiar device of officers (here Frenchmen in the Napoleonic Wars) sitting around drinking and telling stores. Leonard’s story, some years later, at first amuses and then makes incredulous, then saddens ahis auditors.

On the whole, a pretty good start for a 24-year old youth who was still writing pretty dull verse supporting the Bourbon restoration. Bug-Jargal is presented as a powerful, intelligent noble savage –is there a positive portrait of a black man in European literature before that time?

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