Tag Archives: anarchists in fiction

The Man Who was Thursday by G.K. Chesterton

Beware the agent provocateur….

The Man Who was Thursday sat on my shelf for years, and then I recently read about the doings of the Hairies and the infiltration of an anti-fascist organisation by an undercover policeman who subsequently lost his moral bearings. Well it all reminded me of G.K. Chesterton’s novel. So I pulled my copy from the shelf deciding that it was high time I read it.

For those who have not yet heard of the Hairies, this is a term given to the  Special Demonstration Squad (SDS) members of Special Branch who go undercover as operatives. Known as Hairies because they no longer meet police regulations about their hair, these operatives assume different identities and lives for years, and then they report back on the inner workings on the group or groups they are spying on.

But I digress…back to G.K. Chesterton. The Man Who Was Thursday begins on a London evening with a red-haired poet called Lucian Gregory delivering a lecture on anarchism. He’s challenged by another poet named Gabriel Syme. A battle of words commences and results in Gregory declaring that he will show Syme just how serious his beliefs are. Swearing the rival poet to secrecy, Gregory takes Syme into a cleverly hidden underground passage and from there to a meeting of the Central Anarchist Council. The council is composed of seven men–each one named after a day of the week. But the death of one of the council members has led to a vacancy, and Gregory fully expects to be the next Thursday. His speech, all prepared for the occasion, starts off well:

“Comrades,” began Gregory, in a low but penetrating voice, “it is not necessary for me to tell you what is my policy, for it is your policy also. Our belief has been slandered, it has been disfigured, it has been utterly confused and concealed, but it has never been altered. Those who talk about anarchism and its dangers go everywhere and nowhere to get their information, except to us, except to the fountain head. They learn about anarchists from sixpenny novels; they learn about anarchists from tradesmen’s newspapers; they learn about anarchists from Ally Sloper’s Half-Holiday and the Sporting Times. They never learn about anarchists from anarchists.”

And that’s a very sensible observation. Unfortunately, Gregory’s speech goes downhill from there and rapidly devolves into bizarre comparisons between anarchists and catholics. This sort of talk is hardly going to endear Gregory to a No Gods, No Masters crowd, but it’s Gregory’s assertion that anarchists are “meek” which seals his failed candidacy. What is so surprising is that Syme, who’s revealed himself to Gregory as an undercover police detective, makes a stirring speech to the anarchist council and is promptly elected as the next Thursday.

Oh the irony…But then again how appropos. Here’s Syme to Gregory after revealing that he’s really an undercover policeman–a quote that should give the novel’s sense of absurdity:

“Don’t you see that we’ve checkmated each other?” cried Syme. “I can’t tell the police you are an anarchist. You can’t tell the anarchists I’m a policeman. I can only watch you, knowing what you are; you can only watch me, knowing what I am. In short, it’s a lonely intellectual duel, my head against yours. I’m a policeman deprived of the help of the police. You, my poor fellow, are an anarchist deprived of the help of that law and organization which is so essential to anarchy. The one solitary difference is in your favour. You are not surrounded by inquisitive policeman; I am surrounded by inquisitive anarchists. I cannot betray you, but I might betray myself. Come, come: wait and see me betray myself. I shall do it so nicely.”

The Man Who Was Thursday, according to Kingsley Amis in his introduction is  “not quite a political bad dream, nor a metaphysical thriller, nor a cosmic joke in the form of a spy novel, but it has something of all three.” I don’t know what I expected.  A mystery perhaps, but Chesterton’s novel, published in 1908, grows increasingly more absurd and is actually very funny in spots. I can see why Kingsley Amis claimed it as one of his all-time favourite novels, but it’s a strange hodge-podge which even includes strains of the occult. Chesterton, apparently, had to address questions regarding the novel’s religious symbolism (which he argued against), and while the religious symbolism is rife throughout the novel, this adds to the absurdity.

The book’s full title is The Man Who Was Thursday: A Nightmare and that seems a fairly apt description. No one is who they seem, everyone is lying and as the story continues it does take on a nightmarish almost phantasmagorical element. There seems to be a monstrous plot afoot to take over… exactly nothing. But whose devilish brain is at the core of the plot? Who is providing the dynamite? Who are the good guys? And who are the baddies?

Interestingly Chesterton does not seem to be, in theory at least, opposed to anarchism. Rather the novel seems to imply that anarchism and anarchists are elusive by their very nature and perhaps those who scream their beliefs from the rooftops are …well… nothing but Hairies (or Annas). The Anarchist Council is portrayed as an extremely ineffective, comic bunch and yet there remains a sinister undercurrent. The source of that undercurrent is the heart of this novel.

“But this absurd!” cried the policeman, clasping his hands with an excitement uncommon in persons of his figure and costume, “but this is intolerable! I don’t know what you’re doing, but you’re wasting your life. You must, you shall, join our special army against anarchy. Their armies are on our frontiers. Their bolt is ready to fall. A moment more, and you may lose the glory of working with us, perhaps the glory of dying with the last heroes of the world.”

“It is a chance not to be missed, certainly,” assented Syme, “but still I do not quite understand. I know as well as anybody that the modern world is full of lawless little men and mad little movements. But, beastly as they are, they generally have the one merit of disagreeing with each other. How can you talk of their leading one army or hurling one bolt. What is this anarchy?” 

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Germinal by Emile Zola

When I first began reading Emile Zola’s twenty-volume Rougon-Macquart series, there were some titles I really looked forward to, and Germinal was one of them. Germinal is number 13 in the series and is considered to be Zola’s masterpiece. It took Zola 9 months to write the novel, and I was beginning to think it would take me 9 months to read it.

germinalThe novel’s main character is Etienne Lantier. To place him in the Rougon-Macquart family tree, he is the son of Gervaise (L’Assommoir) and the half brother of one of France’s most infamous and naughtiest prostitutes, Nana. Etienne appears as a child and then as an adolescent in L’Assommoir, and when Germinal begins, Etienne is a young unemployed man, on the brink of starvation who is wandering the countryside looking for work. His travels bring him to Montsou, a coal mining town in Northern France, and as luck would have it, he appears at the right moment and is employed pushing the coal carts down inside the mines. Etienne is at first horrified by life in the mines and the conditions suffered by miners. To Etienne, as the men descend in a cage to the deep bowels of the mine to begin their shift, the monstrous mine’s insatiable appetite seems to consume the men:

 “in more or less greedy mouthfuls, depending on the depth of the level they were bound for, but without ever stopping, always hungry, its giant bowels capable of digesting a nation. It filled, and filled again, and the dark depths remained silent  as the cage rose up from the void, silently opening its gaping jaws.”  

Etienne is befriended by the miner, Maheu and his family–including his daughter, Catherine. While Etienne is attracted to Catherine, the miner, Chaval, who’s staked out Catherine as his some time earlier, uses Etienne’s arrival to coerce Catherine into a sexual relationship.

The book spends some considerable time detailing the miserable daily life of the miners, and this makes for some extremely bleak reading. The Maheu family lives a few mouthfuls away from starvation, and the large family is squashed into a hovel provided by the mining company. The miners are paid a pittance every two weeks, and are subject to various fines that chip away at their already-subsistence level wages. Young children of miners are put to work in the pit and they slave their entire lives under horrendous conditions in the hopes of earning a meagre pension at the age of 60. It’s difficult to put any food on the table at times, and some scenes describe how the smaller children squabble over food, or how family members go without so that others can eat a crust of bread. Children are seen as assets since they contribute to the pot, and as assets, marriage and departure to establish a separate home is viciously discouraged, and this leads to a moral breakdown within the mining family community. Some families are even forced to prostitute their daughters and wives in exchange for food from the local shop owner.

By keeping the miners just one step away from starvation, the mine managers and owners largely manage to subdue any rebellion, and the miners are:

“restrained by the force of hierarchical authority, that military command structure which ran from the lads at the incline right up to the overman, keeping everyone subservient to the person above him.”

A crisis comes when the demand for coal slows, and the owners of the mines decide to take it out of the hides of the workers by paying less per cart of coal. This translates to slow starvation for the workers. Pushed to breaking point, the miners decide to strike, and Etienne Lantier, who during his time at the mine has developed political ideals, becomes one of the leaders. As an outsider, as someone who didn’t spend his childhood in the mine, Etienne isn’t so willing to meekly accept the miner’s yoke. Influenced by the “exterminating angel” anarchist Souvarine, and by the former miner & rabblerouser, Rasseneur, Etienne has had the foresight to organise the miners before the latest cuts, and so the miners have managed to scrape together a tiny contingency fund, but it isn’t enough to stave off starvation.

The first part of the novel spends a considerable time describing the conditions for the miners–both down in the pits and up in their threadbare, freezing, squalid homes. These early pages set the scene for the later action, and once the horrific details of the lives of the miners are absorbed, it seems impossible that their lives can get worse. But of course, that’s exactly what happens. The feeling of quiet despair slowly evolves into doom, and of course, the doom arrives in the shape of starvation, violent repression and desperate acts.

One of the book’s most interesting and pivotal characters is anarchist Souvarine, a gentle man who nonetheless believes that peaceful protests are meaningless, that strikes only damage the workers, and that all negotiation is pointless:

“As for raising wages, how can they? It is graven in tablets of bronze that wages should be fixed at the absolute minimum, just the barest necessary for the workers to eat a crust of bread and have children…If wages fall too low, the workers die, and the demand for new workmen makes them rise again. If they rise too high, the surplus offer makes them drop again…It’s the balanced budget of empty bellies, a life sentence condemning the workers to the prison camp of poverty.”

To Souvarine, who never underestimates the power of potential abuse from the bourgeoisie, the system as it exists cannot be modified or reformed and he argues for destruction:

“We must destroy everything, or hunger will spring up again. Yes! Anarchy, and end to everything, the earth bathed in blood and purified by fire … Then we’ll have another think.”

Zola shows compassion for the plight of the miners but some of the most poignant passages in the novel concern the horses who slave in the mines. At one point early in the novel Zola describes Bataille, a white horse that has spent 10 years down in the dark mine and his reaction when a new, terrified horse named Trompette is lowered down the mine shaft to join him:

“Soon Trompette was laid out on the iron slabs, a motionless mass, lost in the nightmare of the dark bottomless pit, and the long deafening hall. They were starting to untie him when Bataille who had been unharnessed a little earlier, came up and stretched out his neck to sniff at the new companion who had fallen from earth to meet him. The workmen formed a wide circle round them and laughed. What was it that smelled so good? But Bataille was deaf to their mockery. He was excited by the smell of fresh air, the forgotten scent of sunshine in the meadows. And he suddenly let out a resounding whinny, whose happy music seemed muted with a sorrowful sigh. It was a welcoming shout, and a cry of pleasure at the arrival of a sudden whiff of the past, but also a sigh of pity for the latest prisoner, who would never be sent back alive.”

While there can be no argument that Germinal is one of Zola’s greatest novels, due to the subject matter it is not particularly pleasant reading and is fairly depressing. Zola painstakingly paints a portrait of class war through the deprivation of the miners’ lives, and then just as you think it couldn’t get any worse…it does. Perhaps the lightest part of the book occurs when the mine owning Gregoire family visit the mine manager, Hennebeau for lunch, and the attitudes of the bourgeoisie fly across the table during the feast prepared for their well-tended stomachs. While they stuff themselves, the talk moves to the miners and how spoiled the workers are, living in “luxury.” This scene is a hideous reflection of the bourgeoisie attitude to the working class, and it runs the gamut from worrying that the miners’ delegation will steal the silver to the ultimately unfortunate Cecile Gregoire playing Lady Bountiful.

Zola researched conditions in the mine at length while writing Germinal. He made trips to mining towns in Northern France, witnessed a strike and even went down into the bowels of a pit. Whereas some of the novels in the Rougon-Macquart series are intense character studies (Nana, His Excellency) Germinal is the portrayal of class war–those who struggle to improve their meagre lot in life and those in power, reinforced by the state, who squash the effort.

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Black Rain by Georges Simenon

“If things go on like this, take it from me, there’ll be a revolution.”

Author Simenon was an extremely prolific writer–producing over 200 novels and 150 novellas in his lifetime. He is perhaps best known for his Maigret series. However, many of his novels falls into the romans durs (‘hard novel’) category, and these psychological novels are–I think–the best of Simenon’s works. The novella Black Rain does not seem to fall into the romans durs category–it’s not hard-edged enough for that.

Black Rain is a reconstruction of a child’s memories. The narrator, Jerome, now an adult, recollects a specific period of time, when as a 7-year-old boy he lived with his mother and father in a small town in Normandy. As the son of shopkeepers, Jerome lives over the shop with his parents, and their collective lives are run by routine. Jerome is a solitary child, and his imagination is captivated by another little boy who lives nearby. The other boy, Albert, lives with his grandmother in a room above the seed merchants’ shop. Although the boys have never spoken to each other, Jerome, now an adult, can remember childhood moments when he saw Albert’s face “flattened against the window” staring out at him.

Jerome’s life of strict routine alters when his parents invite the corpulent and unpleasant Aunt Valerie to move in. Aunt Valerie is mired in a legal wrangle over a house she owns. Aunt Valerie hints that perhaps Jerome’s parents will eventually inherit the house, and this elusive promise acts as the stimulus for Jerome’s father to invite Aunt Valerie into their home. So Aunt Valerie moves in, takes over Jerome’s room and immediately begins dominating the household.

These are troubled times. The anarchist Francisco Ferrer is executed in Spain and news of his death reaches Normandy–a region already plagued with strikes and social unrest. Then the news breaks that the police are searching for Albert’s anarchist father, and the town seems to split in two–those who want him hunted down and killed, and those who sympathize. Aunt Valerie falls into the posse mentality while Jerome sympathizes with the poignant vision of the sickly Albert. Jerome tries to make sense of it all, and at one point asks his Aunt “what’s a strike?” She replies “it’s when workers won’t work anymore,” and “they throw things at policemen and go about with razors hamstringing horses.”

This well-structured novella charts Jerome’s memories of that period–recalled now in his adulthood and laced with his mother’s fragmented “falsified” memories and explanations. Jerome is just an innocent bystander in all this, but as children often do, he magnifies both his responsibility and his ability to affect events. Simenon shows, brilliantly, how traumatic incidents that occur in childhood–even if they are merely observed–can haunt us for the rest of our days.

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The Long Exile by Georges Simenon

“He was a petit-bourgeois down to the cut of his jacket, the knot of his tie, and his manner of speaking–the epitome of provincial France, but transported suddenly to the other side of the world, and surrounded by people who, if one looked at them closely, were like supernumerary actors in some exotic stage spectacle. ”

Georges Simenon’s novel The Long Exile is the story of two young anarchists who become fugitives and flee from France to South America following the murder of a wealthy Parisian.

The Long Exile, with shades of Conrad and Graham Greene, is an excellent book, but its central figures Charlotte Godebieu and Joseph Mittel are problematic characters as anarchists. Joseph Mittel, a tragic, frail figure is the son of anarchist and Bonnot gang member Mittelhauser. While the state was unable to convict Mittelhauser of involvement in the Bonnot gang due to insufficient evidence, he is arrested during WWI for “passing state secrets to the enemy” and there commits suicide “having opened up the veins in his wrists with the handle of a spoon which he had sharpened on the edge of his plate over several days.” Still a child, Mittel is subsequently abandoned by his mother, and he later alters his name and is more or less adopted by the French anarchist community. Mittel, whose life story is similar to some of the details of the life of the French film director Jean Vigo, has TB, lived in a sanitarium, and worked in a film company. While Mittel doesn’t really espouse anarchist beliefs, it’s the only world he’s ever known, and anarchists are the only people who’ve ever helped him–finding him employment, and a place to stay. Without the anarchist community, Mittel realizes he would have starved.

Charlotte Godebieu, however, is an entirely different case. In reality, she’s a prostitute, a thief, and a blackmailer who’s learned that a veneer of anarchist beliefs lends a certain romanticism to her behaviour. Charlotte brags about her exploits and her sketchy beliefs, exaggerating details as she draws a crowd of male admirers. She justifies the blackmail and murder of her former employer as necessary in order to finance the publication of the newspaper La Liberte, but even Simenon doesn’t seem to take Charlotte’s proclaimed anarchism seriously. With Charlotte, the author creates a portrait of a very unpleasant character who steals from her own impoverished family.

With help from an anarchist bookseller, Mittel and Charlotte manage to get passage on a ship sailing to South America, captained by the renegade gun-running Mopps. Mopps very quickly becomes obsessed with Charlotte even though he has no illusions about her character: “She’s totally devoid of feeling. She gives herself because she has no choice, or because there may be something in it for her. She thinks of nothing but making herself appear interesting, and when she saw I wasn’t impressed by her freethinking notions, she dropped the subject.” Even though Mopps decides that Charlotte is “no better than a trollop,” he still becomes her lover.

On the long voyage to South America, the other crew members ask Mittel if it’s “true” that he’s an anarchist, and then the next question is whether or not Mittel has “ever thrown a bomb.” When Mittel replies “never” they are clearly disappointed and ask “what’s the point” of being an anarchist if you don’t throw bombs? While the crew is initially a little nervous about Mittel, he soon gains everyone’s respect and Captain Mopps’ affection.

At one point, Mittel admits to himself that “he was no anarchist, but that he was the son of an anarchist, and this made him a kind of aristocrat among aristocrats. He was forced to attend all their meetings as an example to the younger generation.” He feels as though there’s “no escape” for him, and that no matter where he travels “there were anarchist, groups, cells, only waiting to grab him and do him honor” as the “son of a French Martyr.” While Simenon’s use of the word “aristocrat” is jarring when describing Mittel’s position in the anarchist community, this is the author’s attempt to describe the anarchist community’s view towards the son of a deceased comrade. Simenon doesn’t seem to take Mittel’s complaints about the pressure from the anarchist community quite seriously. Mittel is seen as a sympathetic, yet weak lost character who lacks any ability to make decisions about his own fate. At several points in the novel, he remarks that he had “no choice” about his life, and indeed even his exile to South America with Charlotte is something that simply happens.

Charlotte and Mittel eventually land in Columbia where Mittel takes a job working in a remote mine that supposedly yields a large amount of gold. Trapped here with Charlotte and a Belgian geologist who may or may not be insane, Mittel becomes involved in a murderous scam and experiences human greed and corruption through his brush with a group of corrupt businessmen. Mittel’s weak character leads him into trouble when he’s finally forced to take a stand in the warring business community of Buenaventura.

Escaping from Columbia and the intricate politics of rival business interests, Mittel and Charlotte travel to Tahiti to join Mopps. Here Charlotte manages a bar for ex-pats, and Mittel who’s left to observe Charlotte’s flirtations and affairs, begins to mull over his life….

A surface examination of Simenon’s protagonists may lead us to the hasty conclusion that Charlotte and Mittel embody all the negative stereotypes of anarchism. But Simenon does not seem entirely unsympathetic to anarchism in this novel. Indeed Simenon’s creation of Charlotte and Mittel as anarchists illustrates the idea that all sorts may be attracted to anarchism, and that as the son of an “anarchist martyr” Mittel carries a legacy that no one is likely to forget. Even though Mittel is not involved in Charlotte’s crime, he immediately is linked to the murder by the press. Furthermore, Simenon makes it perfectly clear that while Mittel and Charlotte are labeled as anarchists for different reasons, neither of the characters are, in fact really anarchists at all.  Charlotte’s acts of theft, blackmail and murder are arguably les reprises individuelles–acts committed by an Illegalist (although Simenon doesn’t go into such theories), but any such claim drops the minute Charlotte leaves France. Mittel at first sees Charlotte as a “militant anarchist” while he is “halfhearted at best” but by the time they are stuck in Columbia he realizes that they “are just a couple of pathetic little people.” While in the beginning Mittel admires Charlotte’s force of character, he later admits that she committed murder “not so much from devotion to the Cause as from bravado, because she wanted to prove she was something better than a servant.”

Simenon is a great favourite of mine, and The Long Exile is one of his best novels.

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