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Posted December. 16, 2006 08:03,   


There was nothing to smile about in 17th Century England, which was overwhelmed with political and social disorder. The great writer Victor Hugo (1802-1885) portrayed England in this period in his novel, ironically titled “L`Homme qui rit” (The Man Who Laughs, 1869).

The novel contains the writer’s 20 years of experience in England, where he sought shelter while resisting Coup d`Etat of Louis Napoleon. He showed his affection toward this novel when he said, “I have never written anything like this.” The French government even announced it as a must read novel in 2005.

It has now been translated into Korean for the first time.

The characters’ names are already somewhat cynical. The names Ursus and Homo mean bear and human, respectively. Ursus is the name of a man who wears a bear’s skin, and Homo is the name of the wolf that Ursus takes along. Ursus, who makes his living by telling people stories (yet very intellectual and thoughtful), meeting the laughing man is the story of the novel.

Gwynplain was kidnapped and had a forced operation to change his face as if he was smiling even though he was not. Although he was set free, being young, he could not live alone and reached the state of starvation. He was saved with Ursus’ help whom he met accidentally. Afterwards, he followed Ursus in his journeys and aided his story telling.

17th Century England in the eyes of a growing Gwynplain is full of chaos. After the death of Cromwell, who was in power after the Puritan Revolution, England returned to a monarchy regime. However, the kings were guilty of dictatorship and maladministration. Political wrangling continued and the gap between the rich and the poor widened. When a duchess led Gwynplain into upper society, the nobles’ disgraces also appeared.

Hugo’s characteristic of leading the story bold and serious stays the same. However, unlike in “Les Miserables” or in “Notre-Dame de Paris” where he showed strong narration, he points out social problems calmly yet sensitively. “Hunger could be seen on an old lady’s forehead and prostitution on a girl’s. Prostitution that gave money to the girl was gloomier. In the crowd, there were only arms and no tools. Over here was unemployment, there was exploitation and over there was subjugation. Gwynplain was reading these things.”

Criticism of vicious societal habits is still valid. Hugo’s 100 years-old question of “what makes human human” is not solved yet. Each sentence requires a lot of thinking, but is worth the time.

Like other novels of his, L’Homme qui rit became transformed. To movies then to theater and it became a musical this year. The concept of having to smile even though one does not want to was used by the Joker in the movie Batman and the smile man in the Japanese animation Ghost in the Shell.