(translated by LW Tancock)
spoiler: if you’re short on time, this review ends, “Buy it and read it. It is terrific.”
I can’t believe that I left it so long before I got round to reading this stone-cold classic: it really has been my loss. First published in 1885, it is the story of a village of coal miners and their families in northern France, their privations and struggles – counterpointed with visits to the mansion and unthinking luxuries of the mine owner – the degradation of their working conditions – the filth, the brutality, not to mention the presence of barefoot children 700m underground, where the girls are routinely abused by the miners. It could have been written about any of the mass exploitative sweatshops that we have in the world today, and that is the scary bit; capitalism continues to exploit and destroy lives.
Despite the subject matter and length (500 pages), it is a quick and straight forward read. There is no antiquated language, no passages of purple prose which might slow progress (and dim enthusiasm). It is, in fact, a joy to read. The characters are wonderfully written and it is in the main, completely believable.
When the owners attempt to fix the pay rates so that the take home pay of the already almost starving miners, would drop even further, they have no recourse but to take strike action.
“So that was what the company was up to, a disguised wage-cut! They were economising out of the miner’s pockets. ‘God Almighty!’ repeated Maheu, ‘if we accept this we are bloody fools!’”
“We want bread! We want bread!” is a repeated refrain throughout the novel. Just as there are millions reliant food banks, children in hospital with malnutrition, in 2020.
Half-way through the book, at an earlier panic underground, the miners and children can’t use the lifts to escape, so they have use the emergency ‘chimney’ – 700m, scaled using something like 120 ladders, one after the other, 3 people at a time on each ladder, their backs and limbs bumping against each other, grown men in danger of knocking smaller individuals down the shaft, feet and elbows bleeding and scarred from the metal rungs and rock sides of the chimney…it is a terrifyingly claustrophobic scene.
There are terrifically written crowd scenes; attempts to raise a political consciousness among the people about what they are facing, countered by lies, bribes and straight out threats, including calling in the army.
“You can ask for bread now, but you’ll get bullets.”
“The women had come into sight, nearly a thousand of them, dishevelled after their tramp; in rags through which could be seen their naked flesh worn out with bearing children doomed to starve. Some of them had babies in their arms and raised them aloft and waved them like flags of grief and vengeance.”
The crowds turn ugly, there is a violence – a symbolic castration of an oppressive and exploitative force in the village – the machines and mines are wrecked:
“But these acts of revenge did not feed them, and their stomachs cried out more and more insistently for food. The great lamentation rose again…We want bread! We want bread!”
Eventually the army and their own hunger imposed order after a fashion, and the beaten workers return only to be faced with an act of sabotage that makes a mine implode, trapping people underground as flood waters rise – be warned, this section contains one of the most heart-breaking animal deaths that I have read, that of a pit-pony…
…and I won’t spoil the ending.
Buy it and read it. It is terrific.