As the Notre Dame burnt and its images flashed across the world’s screens, a book leaped from slumber to a new life.
Within hours, Victor Hugo’s epic novel The Hunchback of Notre Dame (1831) began to sell as it had not sold for years, decades. By the next two days it became the most sought-after book in its original French and in its many translations, right across the globe. According to the French daily Le Monde the book stood – and continued to even after a week of the blaze – at the top of the Amazon bestseller list in France.
Folio ordered a cheap reprint of 30,000 copies of the book, with the price slashed from €10.20 to €5.60, with all profits going to the national collection for the cathedral’s restoration. Livre de Poche released a new version for €4.40 and are to give €1 to the fund for every volume sold.
Airport bookshops must have ordered copies of the novel for long distance fliers’ in-flight reading. Libraries across the world have doubtless found a spurt in demand for dusty copies of the book, with Kindle living up to the meaning of its name in the multiple knocks on Kindle Stores’ “door” for screen servings of the novel.
In another realm, the Disney movie version of the story is said to have rocketed into the top 10 of family films – no surprise there because the Disney version is unforgettable. Hugo’s novel is an unlikely candidate for a Disney production, but its policymakers are savvy. There is space in that genre for darkness as well and the highly visual personality of Quasimodo is quintessentially Disney material. The Disney portrayal of Quasimodo is heart-wrenching, unforgettable.
The film not only got a G rating from the Motion Picture Association of America but also became a musical sensation, with the score written by Alan Menken and songs by both Menken and the acclaimed lyricist Stephen Schwartz. I had never seen the animated film but now tuned into its songs, smitten. Hugo would have hugged them. I would urge readers to tune into Out There – a song of great depth.
There cannot be too many around who remember having seen in 1939 the film made that war year with Charles Laughton as Quasimodo the hunchback and Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda the gypsy (as she was mistakenly believed to be). Those who saw it then or in the period immediately thereafter could not but have seen Hitler’s sadistic treatment of people with physical and mental illness and also , notoriously, of ethnic Poles.
But certainly there would be those who remember seeing Anthony Quinn as the impassioned speech-impaired Quasimodo and Gina Lollobrigida as Esmeralda in their 1956 film. Indians would see in Quinn as Quasimodo do a Balraj Sahni in Do Bigha Zamin. He speaks unspeakingly. One way or another, Victor Hugo’s novel has had a resurrection.
The fire in the basilica is only one part of the reason. The fire in the novel is another. Reading it churns you, burns you.
I turned, while thinking of the fire and the novel, instinctively, to Project Gutenberg’s Public Domain online version of the work in English translation. And was deeply stirred by five distinct messages from Victor Hugo. Quasimodo, deformed, deaf and almost blind, is a bell-ringer in the basilica. He is ringing five bells for the world to hear.
One, the fragility of built heritage. That is everywhere in danger – both at the hands of the fine tooth-saw of Time, and by the blunt crow-bars of vandals, whether of the Babri Masjid type or “developers”.
Two, crime and corruption within houses of worship – something Pope Francis is warning us about.
Three, the vulnerability of nobody people – the victims of circumstance. The Rohingya provide only the newest example of dispossession, dislocation, devastation.
Four, the neglect, worldwide, of people with deformities and disabilities.
Five, the venality of the death penalty.
Great as this novel of Hugo’s is, another novel of his, a masterpiece, needs to be recalled in this “Hugo moment”: The Last Day of a Condemned Man, first published in 1829, four years before Hunchback. The novel is about the thoughts of a man condemned to die. Hugo knew of the guillotine and, one day, seeing an executioner greasing the device for a scheduled execution he was so outraged that he began writing this novel. Though lesser known than Hunchback and Les Miserables, the novel is in my view, even greater than those two great works. Fyodor Dostoevsky said it was “absolutely the most real and truthful of everything that Hugo wrote”.
The fire in Paris’ Notre Dame is a reminder of fires, outer and inner in today’s world. And the response to it tells us of that which cannot burn.