0611 | Germinal | Emile Zola


Britain has The Ragged-Trousered Philanthropists. The US has The Jungle. France has Germinal. It falls somewhere between the two in terms of its readability, but it is far, far ahead in terms of both its influence and the esteem with which it is (still) held in its home country.

I don’t know for sure, but I bet if you find your nearest Frenchie and ask them, they will have heard of this novel. Try doing that with your nearest Brit or USAnian for their respective novels. I’d be surprised if you got more than a questioning grunt in response from the latter two. France isn’t my favourite country on earth, but for worker’s rights, they have to be given credit and that’s why novels like this one are remembered there.

Written more than 20 years before The Jungle, Germinal is the moving story of the brutal consequences of a miners’ strike in northern France. Zola, a contemporary of and equivalent to Dickens in terms of literary influence and sheer storytelling, can spin a yarn. As with The Jungle, you find yourselves face to face with families who have to endure the harshest working conditions imaginable.

Unlike The Jungle though, there are leaders in industry who you can sympathise with. The impact of the strike on one pit owner in particular is told in a remarkably balanced way. From this, it seems that Zola was not depicting the enemy as those who employed workers, but rather everyone in a capitalist system with an insatiable appetite for profit.

Over 140 years later, we’re still feeding the beast. From the sweatshops of China where most of Amazon’s stock is created to the worn out warehouse workers who dispatch your order, the system we dare not challenge enslaves us.

In the last few years, as I approach retirement and my perspective on full-time work changes, I’ve come to question why it is that we must continue to innovate, to improve, to pack more productivity into fewer hours, to make those figures higher than last year, year in year out. It’s relentless and exhausting, and I can’t for the life of me understand why the (dare I say it, western?) world carries on this way.

Most of us earn far too much money for our needs. Particularly where I live, people have real issues knowing what to do with what they amass. It strikes me that if we were only able to garner what we needed, there would be more of our finite resources to go around. Although we may disagree on how we might bring this ideal about, I’d be the first to call you a fool if you said we shouldn’t bother trying.

Next year, I’ll be doing something about that personally, and it’s books like Germinal that make me realise that I’ll be joining a long list of people who have been attempting to change this situation for a long, long time.

I’m not sure my own choices will make much difference, but maybe ours could.

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