Sunday, July 12, 2015

Book 66- Germinal (102nd book)

It has taken me a long time to get around to writing my blog for Germinal. I am not sure why since I enjoyed the book despite its fairly dark plot. Germinal follows Etienne Lanthier, an outsider, as he arrives in the mining town of Montsou only to realize that the conditions there are deplorable. He searches about for a solution and is eventually able to convince the miners to strike...with disastrous consequences. The novel ends ambiguously as Lanthier leaves town. The images of spring and germination, however, hint at the future hope that one day the power of the people might be restored to them.

Canada has long been accused of being a socialist country, but I think the one thing that sets it apart from Communist Russian is that there is a desire to raise EVERYONE up to a level of comfort and ease rather than bring everyone down to a level of suffering and pain. There is certainly nothing wrong with capitalism, but there is something wrong with income disparity and the rich getting richer while the poor get poorer.

Germinal clearly portrays the trouble when the people in power hold all the purse strings. The miners of Montsou live in homes provided by the mine, heated with coal doled out by the mine and shop at stores owned by the mine. The miners have taken pay cut after pay cut only to watch the mine owners get rich. Although there was unrest before Lanthier came a long everyone just assumed that their life was always going to continue to be the way it had been in the past. I was reminded quite a bit of The Grapes of Wrath as a result of the company owned stores. I think I prefer that novel to this, but I feel that the abject poverty of the workers is more clearly outlined in this novel. It is just so dark, and the miners lives are just so difficult. 

Unions no longer have the favour of the general public that they once did, but this novel chronicles a time before they existed and shows the pitfall of what can happen when workers have no power or safety net to support them. Without the safety net of having saved for hard times the workers would have no ways of disputing changes to pay because if they stopped work in protest they would quickly starve. This is what happened in this novel. I am surprised how quickly we have forgotten in North America that it is unions that have brought us the weekend, the 40 hour work week and the end of child labour. Although unions do have their pitfalls, there is a lot to be said for people banding together and fighting for what they believe in. 

This blog is not meant to be a political treatise on workers rights and unionism, but there is no way to write a blog about this novel without addressing the class war depicted by the novel.  Zola was inspired by a strike that occurred in 1884 in France. He actually posed as an engineer and entered the mines to interview the workers. He was much loved by the people and miners shouted "Germinal! Germinal!" at his funeral as a way to honour him for the work that he had done in accurately representing their plight.

I would recommend this novel for people who are sturdy of heart and in a good place emotionally. It is a dark book and with much of the novel taking place in the mines  with the dark, close spaces and constant fear of fire damp it is quite claustrophobic.  If things are tough for you in your life at the moment, or if you are feeling down, perhaps I would suggest reading this novel at some point in the future. Since it doesn't explicitly have an answer to the question of whether people can make a difference in the face of overwhelming social pressure it might be hard to stomach. That being said, the book covers a topic that we should not ignore, that of the fate of the poor and powerless.