Germinal, by Emile Zola
Gee, it feels like I haven’t finished a book in ages. Where have I been this past week? I’ll tell you: wallowing in the mire of a dilapidated mid-nineteenth century mine in the north of France, hundreds of meters below the surface of the earth. Oh, dear breeze. Oh dear, dear sunlight!
Germinal is the story of a coal miners’ strike, somewhat inspired by the aftermath of a strike that really took place at Anzin in the early 1800’s. A small community scarred, choked, dismembered by a growling pit that swallows, drinks, digests the flesh and bones of workers, forced by the distant hand of the bourgeoisie, has had enough. They are starving, kept like beasts in a nearby settlement without the protection of labor law, stirred to awareness and action by a young stranger who happens upon them and serves as a catalyst for what’s to come.
Germinal is inundated with epic, overlapping themes of conflict. The injustice of the class system, of course, but also: the simultaneous power and weakness inherent in working as a mass versus as an individual; the historical factors which converge to inspire revolution and sweeping change vs. the deeply entrenched social systems which work to maintain the status quo. Zola also spends a lot of time detailing the depravity of life which exists in severe poverty by painting it as promiscuous and base. It is the rise of industrialist capitalism that is truly base and animalistically cruel, and I think that Zola does get this point across effectively, if problematically, by having the poor workers of his story act relentlessly lascivious. He also does an excellent, if gut-wrenching, job of illustrating the ways in which the repressed aggression of an embattled community is often turned inward toward those presumed to be weakest: its own women and children.
It’s a brutal, unhappy story, abrasively told. It’s political, but not as simplistic or dogmatic as it may seem at first. Each character, whether central or peripheral to the plot, whether involved in the strike or opposing it, appears to make mistakes according to their own lines of reasoning and at some point mirrors the hypocricy of their antagonist. Flaws of ideology, behaviour, methodology, abound on all sides of the struggle. The book is dense, but quite action filled, and very realistic. It was sometimes hard to pick it up again after taking a break, but each time I did I was once again caught up in it, wondering why I was ever hestitant to continue. I’m glad to have made it through, even though it means leaving so many companions in the grumbling belly of that infernal pit, spitting blackness from their lungs, clawing at broken ladders with dirty fingernails, losing ground to the rising water.