Hugo Chavez, the Venezuelan president who died Tuesday, was an avid reader. "Read, read, read, read," he said in a speech in 2009. "That should be our slogan every day."
It turns out that his political position might be attributed (at least in part) to this literary cast of mind. In a New Yorker obit, writer Jon Lee Anderson remembers asking Chavez about the source of his controversial political stance:
"I asked him why, so late in the day, he had decided to adopt socialism. He acknowledged that he had come to it late, long after most of the world had abandoned it, but said that it had clicked for him after he had read Victor Hugo's epic novel 'Les Miserables.'"
While the politics of Hugo's novel, the story of the convict Jean Valjean, the orphan Cosette, and Fantine (the prostitute to whom Anne Hathaway owes her Oscar statuette) are not strictly Marxist, the author certainly shows concern for the social and economic welfare of the downtrodden in turn-of-the-century France. And as Daphnee Denis at Slate suggests, the plight of France at that time was similar to the situation in Venezuela today, something Chavez used to promote his policies.
Chavez often evoked the other Hugo's novel as a sort of catchword for the people he wanted his government to serve, those, as he put it in a 2005 speech, "who spent much of their life in total misery, like Victor Hugo would say."