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Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan

I came across the novel Underground Time by Delphine de Vigan thanks to Emma. The novel seemed to have a considerable impact on her, so when the book became available in English late last year, I was lucky enough to get a review copy. I really like modern French fiction, but most of it, of course, doesn’t make it to translation.

Underground Time has to be the ultimate novel for its portrayal of the toxic work environment, and I suspect that the story will strike a chord for those readers who’ve ever felt trapped in their jobs. I’m not talking about a job in which someone is underappreciated, underpaid or bored to tears. No, I’m talking about psychological warfare waged between an employee and a boss, and a boss who plays dirty but still sticks to the rules. Employees always have the option to move on if a job becomes too stressful, but in this case, Mathilde, a single mother, a widow with three children, doesn’t have the luxury of a second income. She needs her job, and the question becomes, as the novel continues, just how much she will take before she goes postal.

The novel begins on the morning of May 20 when Mathilde wakes up to the day a clairvoyant told her would be significant as a “man would save her at this turning point in her life.” So what does Mathilde need to be saved from? What is going on in her life that is so terrible? The answers to these questions gradually roll out as the novel continues, and it’s a matter of Mathilde’s workplace environment becoming gradually and indescribably untenable.

Mathilde has spent ages looking for where it all started–the beginning, the very beginning, the first clue, the first rift. She’d take things in reverse order, tracking backwards, trying to understand how it had happened, how it began. Each time she would come to the same point, the same date: that presentation one Monday morning in September. 

Mathilde is the “deputy director of marketing in the main health and nutrition division of an international food company for more than eight years.” It was a good eight years until it started to go sour following a meeting between Mathilde, her boss Jacques and a “well-known institute.” The meeting doesn’t go well, and Mathilde ventures an opinion which contradicts Jacques. Up to this point, Mathilde who was picked by Jacques from an approved pool of job candidates, felt grateful for his confidence in her, and she “was used to agreeing with him.” Jacques has a reputation for being notoriously difficult and temperamental, but this has never been an issue between them before. 

The problems between Jacques and Mathilde begin following the meeting. It’s all very subtle at first, but make no mistake, this is pyschological warfare. Jacques begins by feigning surprise when she leaves at 6:30 and then come personal comments disguised as ‘concern.’ Suddenly her handwriting is “illegible” and she looks like “crap.” At first Mathilde is the only one to feel the sting of these remarks, but then she’s cut out of the loop of communication, and things become increasingly worse….

That was the day she realised that Jacques’s plan to destroy her was not confined to her own department, that he had begun discrediting her further afield and that it was completely within his power to do so.

Of course, Mathilde tries various approaches but each one seems to bring reprisals in this “absurd, invisible struggle.”

As Mathilde’s story unfolds, a parallel narrative forms of Thibault, a Parisian doctor who once dreamed on being a surgeon until an accident claimed several fingers. Chapters alternate between Mathilde’s story of  trying to survive the stress of total alienation in the workplace and Thibault as he breaks off an emotionally unsatisfying relationship with a woman. Both Thibault and Mathilde are revealed as lonely people who long for the communication which seems to be denied them:

His life is nothing like those of the characters in that French soap opera which was such a big hit in the 1980s. The doctors in that were brave and alert–they dashed through the night, parked on the pavement and ran up the stairs four at a time. There’s nothing heroic about him. He’s got his hands in the shit, and the shit sticks to them. His life does without sirens and flashing lights.His life is made up of sixty per cent nasal inflammation and forty per cent loneliness, That’s all his life is; a ringside view of the full-scale of the disaster.

I have a problem with passive characters, so I was annoyed in spots with both Thibault and Mathilde. I wanted them to do something, and at one point in the novel, I silently urged Mathilde to take drastic action. The chapters that tell Mathilde’s story have a stronger resonace than those which describe Thibault, well for this reader at least. Mathilde’s story is told with the stinging pain of experience while I wasn’t entirely convinced about Thibault’s decision to dump a woman with whom he has great sex but who is disappointing when it comes to affection. But that small issue aside, Thibault’s story shows a barren life with depressing encounters as he visits patient after patient in their homes–people locked into lives of disappointment, disease and loneliness.

  Underground Time reminds me of the premise of the film Crime d’Amour–a film that started out very strongly in its depiction of the powerlessness of an employee when faced with her boss’s desire to annihilate her career and destroy her mentally. Crime d’Amour took the easy way out, however, by turning into a thriller. I would rather it had stayed focused on the psychological warfare between a boss and her underling. Underground Time does just that, and the author creates incredible tension between main character Mathilde and her boss even as she paints the picture of this difficult relationship complete with Jacques’s quirky, tantrum-driven behaviour which on one level seems eccentric until Mathilde becomes the target of his viciousness.

For Emma’s review go here

Underground Time translated into English by George Miller

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Hearts and Minds by Amanda Craig

Some years ago, I read a magazine article in which the author declared that what the literary world so badly needs is another writer like Dickens–someone whose novels bring social problems to the attention of readers. It’s been years since I read the article, and I really can’t remember the specifics, but the article’s essential idea stayed with me.

hearts and mindsI just finished reading Amanda Craig’s novel, Hearts and Minds, and I can’t help but compare the book to Dickens in its scope and its sweeping integrative approach to social ills. While Hearts and Minds is, above all, a novel of social conscience, it also manages to be a wonderful, highly readable tale–mystery, adventure, romance, drama and despair all rolled into a lively commentary on 21st century London.

Craig creates a tremendously ambitious novel of modern London, plagued with crime, illegal immigration, prostitution, and terrorism. And while like Dickens, Craig’s characters collide in moments of amazing coincidence, the Dickens twee is absent. Instead this is 21st century London–a city that survived the Plague, the Great Fire and now terrorism. This is the city to which illegal immigrants flock as they escape from violence, civil war, genocide, starvation, and collapsing civilisations. Unfortunately, while these refugees flee their homes and hope for better lives in London, some face the very same sort of violence they ran from. While a lucky few are employed illegally as au pairs or domestics by the wealthy, others endure subsistence level lives. But these are the fortunate ones. Others vanish into the brothels of London.

Very much like a Victorian multi-plot novel–complete with titled chapters, Hearts and Minds does not follow a single story stream, and instead the book presents a tapestry of characters whose lives are integrated in ways they sometimes don’t understand. Some of the characters connect, and others pass each other silently, unaware of the invisible cords that bind them together. In spite of the large number of characters and the splintered stories, the novel’s many threads are held together with strong authorial control.

Hearts and Minds begins with this passage:

“At night, even in these dead months of the year, the city is never wholly dark. Its shadows twitch with a harsh orange light that glows, as the pulse of electric power courses through its body like dreams. The sour air, breathed in and out by eight million lungs, stained by exhaust pipes and strained through ventilators is never clean, although, after a time, you no longer notice its bitter taste and smell. The dust of ages swirls and falls, staining walls, darkening glass, coating surfaces, clogging lungs. Bricks, leaves, paper, food, bones and skin all decay, reduced to almost invisible specks that accumulate in the eternal dust of London.” 

This passage sets the scene of an ancient yet somehow ageless London, but Craig also includes the idea that the city will survive–even as humans decay and add to its detritus. While London withstands the onslaughts of time, disease, natural disaster and political violence, the city is also plagued with numerous, perhaps insurmountable social problems. In 21st century Britain, millions are packing their suitcases and retiring abroad, overwhelmed teachers are under siege from pupils who are “like a boatload of disgruntled voyagers, off along the dark river of indifference,” and the overworked and underfunded National Health Service is dying a slow, painful death.

While some see only the tourist attractions and the glamorous side of London (“a man in a Victorian policeman’s uniform waits outside the non-existent Sherlock Holmes’s non-existent flat 221B for the delectation of tourists”), this vast city also has a dark underbelly. Neighbourhood brothels manage to maintain a booming business right under the oblivious noses of those who live next door. While some neighbourhoods have decayed, still others have been absorbed and gentrified in the economic boom. London is portrayed as a city with multiple faces and it’s a largely disinterested backdrop to crime. Meanwhile Londoners don’t seem to notice the invisible immigrant population who clean the streets, drive the taxis, and operate the car washes.

One of the novel’s main characters is Polly, a human-rights solicitor, and a single parent with two teenagers, Robbie and Tania. Polly doesn’t know how she would cope with the competing demands in her life if it weren’t for her housekeeper, her “right hand,” Iryna. Polly relies on Iryna completely, and tries not to dwell on the thought that Iryna, a Russian is illegal and works for a pittance–twenty-five hours a week for seventy pounds.

Polly’s world comes crashing down when Iryna disappears. As she discusses the subject with friends and acquaintances, the prevailing attitude seems to be ‘what else did you expect?’ But just as Polly convinces herself that Iryna betrayed her trust, she has reason to suspect that something may be horribly wrong. Iryna, a young, attractive woman, who has a history of being extremely reliable, has vanished, and yet Polly fails to initially contemplate the horrifying possibilities.  Under normal circumstances, Polly would contact the police, but this doesn’t occur to her. If anyone is capable of grasping the problems facing an illegal immigrant, it should be human-rights solicitor Polly. But when Iryna disappears, Polly isn’t alarmed, she’s inconvenienced.

As the novel continues, other characters are introduced: Katie, an American editorial assistant who works at the offices of The Rambler magazine, Ian–an idealistic and dedicated teacher from South Africa, Quentin, the Rambler‘s colourful, tyrannical and sexist blast-from-the past editor, Anna–a 15 year-old Ukrainian girl who imagines she’s coming to London to be a maid, and Job–from Zimbabwe who works two jobs in order to send money home to his family. How these people connect is the substance of this marvelous novel.

The feeling that Hearts and Minds is very like an updated Dickens tale is not based solely on the novel’s scope or its quality as a novel of sweeping social conscience. The Dickens connection is also manifested in the character of Job–an educated, sensitive man who comes to Britain complete with notions of the country’s values which are largely garnered from classics of British literature–including… Dickens:

“Job has walked, amazed, round every museum he can find on Sundays, where people from all over the globe wander in to enjoy the most beautiful painting, inventions, buildings. He can’t join a public library, but the cheapness of second- hand paperbacks on stalls and in charity shops almost made him weak. There is an abundance of everything–food dropped half-eaten on the pavement that goes to feed birds or rats–and yet a consciousness of nothing. He thinks of the city conjured for him by Dickens; that foggy, dark place  riddled with crime and yet suffused with kindness and courage. He had been a little disappointed when he arrived to find the soot had been scoured away during the last century, and no horse-drawn carriages. Yet there are still men like Bill Sykes, with their dogs and violence. He sees them right outside his home.”

The novel’s characters are woven into the firm hierarchy of London society–from those who employ illegal immigrants for pitiful wages, to those illegals who are exploited for anonymous sex. Multiple points of view and multiple opinions illustrate opposing values that generally collide on the subject of immigration and illegal labour. At a swank dinner party, for example, one character notes that “we’re sleepwalking into making the poor old British working class completely unemployable,” while another character basically argues that British “workmen” are going to get what they deserve as “they never work hard enough”.

Craig doesn’t fall into the trap of offering solutions, and that’s just as well as I’m not sure there are any. Nonetheless, in Craig’s London, even those buffered by wealth and position cannot imagine that they are free from the taint of illegal immigration, and that’s an uncomfortable thought. I’ll clarify here: Our actions have moral consequences. If you are well off enough to employ an illegal maid to clean your toilets, then you too are implicitly involved with the fallout.  The ‘halycon’ days of British Empire are over, and colonialism has consequences:

“When we invaded placed like Africa and India, we broke down a door, and now we don’t like it that they can come over here, just as we went there. Well tough. It’s not just a question of morality. There is no us and them. There’s just people. We’re all migrants from somewhere.”

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