I got a Kobo e-Reader for Christmas, and ever since then I’ve been devouring book after book. The one I’m currently working on is Les Miserables, one of the freebies available through the Gutenburg project. I decided to try it out because a) I’m too cheap to buy another book right now and b) now that I have an e-reader I don’t have to worry about hauling around a 5 kilo tome in my purse. While I’ve seen the movie before (ages ago), I’ve never seen the play or read the book. I’m only eight percent into the story right now, so those of you who know it well will probably roll your eyes, but I am totally involved in the life and times of Jean Valjean at the moment.
True to the title, the tale begins by outlining his wretched existence up to the present: orphaned as a child, he resided with his sister and her family until the sister’s husband died. He then took up the post of provider for her and his seven nephews and nieces, barely scraping by. One winter, out of work and sick of watching his family starve, he broke into a home and stole a loaf of bread. No sooner was he away from the house than he was caught; and for this, he was penalized with a jail sentence of four years. He attempted escape on a number of occasions, causing extensions of his jail time until, after 19 years of prison, he is released into society at the age of 45 with nothing to his name but a hundred francs and a “yellow passport,” which assures its bearer to be constantly denied at every door.
The book ruminates on the effects of such injustice on the human mind: how can he move forward rationally, or re-enter a society that he has only known to suppress and victimize him? I would ask, further: can we (as readers or as fellow humans) really find fault with any missteps – however cruel – such a man might take?
Strange though it may seem to a North American, certain elements of this post-revolutionary French classic have parallels with contemporary Brazil. Poverty, homelessness, undue social exclusion, classism, illiteracy, ignorance, and violence: all of these are things that I have observed in Brazilian society. They exist in rural and urban areas, in the North and in the South, all intermingled so that a person can be ambling along one of the most expensive commercial avenues in the country within a few blocks of a cross-street notorious for prostitution. A Lexus driver can stop at an intersection and look blindly through the child juggling limes in hopes of earning 50 centavos. And, broadcasted into the living rooms of all, regardless of class, are nightly news reports of gory murders and terrifying robberies. One would think, with social decay staring a person in the face, a reaction would be called for; yet many would rather brush past and continue on their narrow trajectories. Sweep the dregs of society under the carpet; if you don’t look at them, they don’t exist.
I have no doubt that these daily encounters make most Brazilians guiltily uncomfortable at the least; however I have also noticed that the general attitude of the population (as reinforced by the media) is this: “Look how terrible the lives of these poor people are! Oh, how corrupt is our government? Why doesn’t somebody do something?” And to most, it never occurs that in a democratic society, THEY are the ones who need to act; THEY are the “somebody” who should do something. Furthermore, in the next breath, they will complain: “Those people are lazy; look, all they do is drink beer all day, then they spend their nights finding another way to rob us. I can’t find a good maid who won’t steal from me and gossip about me. I want someone who will work 40 hours a week for R$600/month, but there is just nobody good available.” No connection is made between the money they have to spend and the attitude they have to give and the misery they know exists around them. Government is another entity, disconnected from their sphere of influence; and if money talks, it only talks to those above, and not below.
It must be emphasized that I absolutely do not think that Canadians are a better breed of people than Brazilians, nor that they are necessarily more socially conscious. The fact is that Brazilian society, as reflected in government, has not evolved to the point of providing a secure social safety net. Poverty here is unlike any poverty in North America, and it is far more rampant. The emerging middle class is not at fault for wishing to differentiate itself from its past, but it should certainly be held accountable for remembering from whence it came. How much simpler it is to forget to look back in respect, and instead only look down in pity and disgust.
There is another character, in fact the first to be introduced in the story: a bishop who accepts Jean Valjean without question. In his view, a wretched man is more deserving of kindness and pity than a man who lives well in society. While this character is doubtless a beacon of goodness which most people cannot live up to, he serves as a reminder that the kindest thing we can do for our fellow humans is to give them respect without having earned it, and to call them “brother.” It is this respect, unflinchingly and ungrudgingly given, that allows Valjean to feel that he is part of a community greater than just himself for the first time in nearly twenty years. The narration tells us that, after so many years of being put down to a level below dogs, Valjean was equally as likely to lash out in irrationally malevolent acts as to premeditated immorality. As the story stands thus, the reader (me) does not yet know whether he will continue a life of criminality or will reform. Nevertheless, for that one night in the bishop’s home, he is able to be a person, conscious of having a place in society, and a duty to uphold it by not disturbing the peace of others in that house.
A friend and co-worker of mine was just yesterday telling me about his church, and the “random acts of kindness” they like to do. He and his congregation do simple things like bake cakes and give them out to the young men who sell cold drinks at intersections during the hottest part of the day. My favourite story was about handing roses wrapped in messages such as “You are important” to street prostitutes at night. They leave no name, make no mention of God or the church, and expect nothing in return. This message not only acknowledges to these societal fringe-dwellers that they exist, but it helps to reaffirm it to people who have lost any sense of place. Like the bishop in the story, my colleague and his friends are giving hope encompassed in a small token. Showing acknowledgement and respect is something that any one of us is capable of.
I have a theory that the simple kindness of meeting a glance from a stranger has a way of trickling up into more substantive social change. Living in North America, it’s easy to think that we don’t need to do anything for the people we see on the street, as long as we support the existing charities and welfare state. I would argue the opposite; that it is the daily kindnesses we show to others which evolve into stronger, broader institutions. I hope you’ll forgive me for sounding preachy, but my intent was not a didactic essay on how we should treat the poor. Rather, I wanted to show the difference between North American poverty and South American, while drawing parallels with Western society’s development in the past two centuries.
Readers, I know you come from different perspectives: North American, Brazilian, Westerners living in Brazil, and Westerners living on other continents. What do you think about my theory? Can you find any similarities or differences where you are?